6 Psychology Lessons You Learn Scaring Kids for a Living
I've been working at a haunted Halloween trail for the past three years. If you're unsure of what that is, just imagine a haunted house designed exclusively for the kind of people who sometimes offer up hiking as a possible fun activity. Some cultures refer to these people as "psychopaths."
It's definitely not a fun job by any stretch of the imagination, but the experience has imparted me with a particular kind of knowledge. To put it plainly, I know a thing or two about scaring your kids.
It's fine, you'll fix them later.
Wait. Scratch that. As someone who's worked at a haunted Halloween trail for the past three years, I've developed an ear for the screams of youth.
Hold on. Forget I said that. As someone who's worked at a haunted Halloween trail for the past three years, there is no bliss more intense for me than the bliss caused by the look of fear in a child's eyes.
Scaring people on a dark path seems like it would be easy. You simply let things get quiet for a bit, and then suddenly make it loud, like in Paranormal Activity movies, or pity sex. However, it's a surprisingly delicate process to keep a haunted trail running efficiently, and there are a few more important details involved than "Step 1: Boo. Step 2: Repeat Step 1." In fact, most of the challenges are purely mental. For example ...
Teenagers Are Waiting to Not Be Scared
In a perfect world, the people going to your haunted trail would be the cast of the original House on Haunted Hill, multiplied by about a million. They'd come in unaware, have a few fake skeletons dropped around them, and run away screeching in terror. Hell, sometimes I'd even take the cast of the House on Haunted Hill remake, who would come in, become infinitely annoyed with Chris Kattan, and leave baffled and unwilling to star in the sequel. But the thing about dreams is they're just that, unfortunately.
While you do get your fair share of kids and adults, the most troubling demographic that shows up is teenagers. They've aged out of trick-or-treating and aren't ready to turn everything into a drinking game like proper young adults, so they're left with either watching movies or going on haunted trails, apparently. If there is a third option available, I certainly wasn't invited to it. Teens are also fiercely terrified of letting that facade of impenetrable coolness slip, which is the exact opposite of what needs to happen in a forest full of people hiding behind trees and fake gravestones.
"Of course someone's buried here, it says RIP, doesn't it?"
A huge part of middle school and high school is trying on different identities, with the hope of gaining acceptance through one of them. Unfortunately for the world, 99 percent of those identities are some form of douchebag. This brand of insane self-awareness spells doom for those who work the trail, because teens know that the moment they drop their poise to show the slightest hint of weakness, a group of their friends is going to rip their letterman off and then tell the whole girls locker room about their penis size. They also understand, through years of movies based around the concept of "It's like Halloween, but with a scythe!" that when the volume goes down, the shit is about to as well.
For the record, this is a scythe, kids.
There is no one way to scare a teenager, so you're left just throwing ghouls at a wall and seeing what sticks. As they've been so conditioned to the usual tropes, the best approach is a specially timed assault, with the idea that you can catch them in that sweet spot when they're momentarily too distracted to remember to raise their shields of braggadocio. In other words, just catch them while they're texting. That way, you'll be able to get a more satisfying reaction than, "Sweet mask, bro. I bet your boyfriend was terrified. Also, something about your mom."
Kids Will Sabotage the Enjoyment of Other Kids
The instruction booklet for child etiquette is very short, and it's mostly based around preventing them from saying "fuck" too early and getting them to not sling food everywhere. When kids are in a group on Halloween, one of the few nights during the year when they can, as rapper Big Sean said, "Go stupid," this etiquette is hard to maintain. Kids are also, and often unintentionally, huge jerks, as anyone who's been through elementary school can tell you, and as such are perfectly willing to kill any vibes that come their way at the expense of the enjoyment of other kids.
One of the most consistently used themes in the histories of humor and horror is "Kids say the darndest things," whether those things be frighteningly accurate statements about their parents' intimate lives or blunt reports that a house is possessed with demons.
And sometimes they're right.
Another subset in the "darndest things" category is innocently pointing out observations of the world around them and then proceeding to do it again for six more years. On haunted trails, where there is a lot to be noticed, this can hamper the results, because, once they've spotted something that seems suspicious, like the hint that a person is about to jump out, they're going to broadcast it to everyone around them. Then, the performer has no choice but to halfheartedly leap forward, yell, and long for a day that all kids have terrible peripheral vision.
Along with lice, kids love to spread boredom to their peers. If an older one isn't having fun, they'll usually announce it frankly with a, "This is boooorrrring." Then, to nail it home, they'll pass around the rumor that this whole thing is boooorrrring to the other kids. Soon, you have a whole herd who can't focus on the trail because of the overwhelming presence of all these recent allegations of boredom. If scientists actually want to research the way that things spread among dense populations, they should start with a group of 5-year-olds, give those kids something that 5-year-olds enjoy, and then drop a 10-year-old into the mix. Boom. Come get some, Ebola, you punk asshat.
Coordinating While Wearing Costumes Is Stupidly Difficult
Trying to terrify people when you're wearing your normal attire is harassment and is usually frowned upon. If you dress up in zombie makeup, put up a sign, and charge admission, it's perfectly OK. The success of your project often hinges on the effectiveness of the costumes, but, if you're buying cheaply, as the trail I work on had to, you recognize that these costumes are within an inch of falling apart from the second that you look at them in the store and decide that you're smart enough to handle whatever the word "adhesive" means.
My face is an arbitrary combination of Gollum and ex-boyfriend, but it isn't very frightening. So, whatever role I dress up for usually includes a lot of makeup and a few latex scars/features. I use my mouth to do all mah screamin' and spookin' with, and, inevitably, some of the latex covers the parts of my face that need to move. And when you bought the latex cheek slash for $8.99 from the one store in the mall that opens up in October to sell Halloween merchandise and then evaporates into nothingness on Nov. 1 ...
You know the one.
... all the exaggerated facial movements will detach that knife-wound from the side of your head. You begin taking into account things that you never thought you'd have to, like, "What's the minimal amount that I can open my mouth but still be loud and scary? What's the most economical way to produce fear?"
This also applies to any conversations you may need to have about planning or organizing the trail while in the midst of things. If you're wearing a giant mask, everything you say will be muffled and borderline unintelligible. To prevent the fake scars from falling off and floating away into the crisp autumn night, you reduce talking to a minimum and let the people you're working with know of your ambitions through a series of pointing and monosyllabic words. A haunted trail team meeting is just Dawn of the Planet of the Apes without a Gary Oldman.
Keeping a Group Together Is Nearly Impossible
Haunted trails usually make people travel through them in groups, because it gives the performers a chance to get back in their positions and prepare themselves between passes. Also, there's kind of a mob mentality to fear when you're in a group. When an adult starts panicking beside you, while you imagine yourself taking charge and being the person to keep your composure, frequently you just end up panicking too, because you could be next. Lastly, shocking an entire group of people is more fun than shocking a single person. If you try to frighten a person who's by themselves, you just end up feeling weird and sad afterward. Why are you being so mean to lonely people? You should be ashamed.
This will be the rest of her week now, jerk.
Groups tend to split apart during the trail, which means that you constantly have to corral them. If you're a guide, you wait for the stragglers in the back to catch up. If there is no guide, the performer who's just done their best to make you pee will tell you to keep moving. And these stragglers aren't necessarily slower or older than others. Most old people, as a rule, don't go on haunted trails, because 1) jump-scares in real life are a fast route to cardiac arrest, and 2) why go outside when you own a chair?
There is no arguing against that logic, so don't try.
The laggards just react to horror differently.
Some people react by wanting to get the hell out of there as fast as they can. Others, realizing that every shadowy area possibly contains a bleeding fiend waiting to pop out, will creep along, generally clutching another alarmed person. Since fear produced in this kind of harmless fashion provides a roller coaster of emotions -- a rush, followed by the pleasing relief that you survived the mock attack -- the people who go slowly are consistently the people who don't really enjoy it. This doesn't necessitate using haunted trails as a way to test your 400-meter-dash record, but it's way more fun when you're in the heart of things, living like the main character in a Jack London story, without doing all the freezing to death in the end.
Keeping the crowd together and moving them at a perfect speed is vital to making sure that you give them all their money's worth. If someone is too far behind, then they won't be able to get the full impact of what's happening toward the front, leaving them kicking the gravel and lamenting, "Oh, he had a severed head? Dang it. Wish I could've seen that."
Parents Will Ask You to "Tone It Down"
The reasoning behind bringing a child who is too young for anything more brutal than a light giggle on a Halloween trail is lost on me. And these aren't children whom you can't take into an R-rated movie because of how they may respond to it. These are children who can't walk yet, and parents expect that, now that they have this mystical, crying artifact in their hands, they are immune to all the haunty stuff.
They let the people in the trail know that they're now a non-entity with their "Get Out of Scare Free" child by exclaiming things like, "Hey! I have a child! Watch out, because there's a little kid coming!" Which ruins the experience for everyone, because the people in costume have to be on their best behavior. No one wants to be the escaped inmate with the hacksaw who mentally scarred the infant, so, instead of monsters being monstrous, you have monsters, out in the open, trying not to offend the protective, misguided parent and his offspring, which is somehow even creepier.
Like how everything about this gesture of kindness looks potentially terrifying.
A few parents will ask you beforehand if there is a way to make the trail more pleasant, but that chiefly depends on the willingness of those who run it. Some of the bigger trails have different options for different age ranges. I've never been on one specifically formulated for stroller luggage, but I imagine it's a bunch of people dressed as Dracula, talking amiably about how it's OK to be unique.
You just have to be OK with never having friends.
The trail I work at doesn't have that luxury, so providing entertainment for a toddler basically amounts to grabbing your walkie-talkie and trying not to sound disappointed when you say, "We've got a little kid here." This leaves you hoping that all the people wearing heavy masks can quickly acknowledge the equivalent of: "Bzzzt. This is Daniel. Fuck my life. Bzzzt," coming through the tiny speaker, and adjust accordingly, rather than going through the normal motions and giving newborns an encounter that will set them on a path to becoming future haunted trail actors.
Kids Will Question Everything
The last haunted trail that I went to as a customer was in 2003 on an evening that included a viewing of the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which became my second-favorite film at the time, only behind Freddy vs. Jason. The film occupying the second-place slot has since changed). The people who ran that trail, in an effort to capitalize on the loose knowledge that something involving a chainsaw and a massacre was popular, decided to include a man running towards the crowd while revving the titular weapon. Their fatal mistake, for me, was the trail guide's insistence that no one knew the name Leatherface. Hadn't he seen the movie, which explicitly states the character's name? Why is he being such a massive idiot about this? Why is the world trying to ruin everything for me?
How much studying do you need to do before you recognize this as scary?
The accuracy of things is surprisingly important to some children, or, in the case of the above, some 14-year-olds (I'm a Freddy vs. Jason-loving child at heart). They can't recall years' worth of different portrayals to compare and contrast. So, if something seems a bit off, it's hard for them to reconcile this discrepancy with the one pop culture image that they have in their brains. I acted as the trail guide in the first trail I helped run, and while mentioning vampires, a little girl stopped me to tell me that my information wasn't gelling with the things she'd learned from watching Underworld. And her tone wasn't "I think vampires are real, because my parents haven't taught me to separate fact from fiction." It was "If you haven't seen Underworld, then why in the hell are you talking about vampires? You words mean nothing, dismal stranger."
I suppose it's a valid point.
I received comments like this all night, and they often started with, "But I thought ... ." That's why the go-to haunted trail costumes are the ones that require meager explanation, like deformed clowns or zombies. Those things are very openly frightful, regardless of context. But if, like I've done, you're a guide claiming to be Van Helsing, a character that hasn't been legitimately relevant since 19-goddamn-58, the kids start out by losing interest, because you're making them jump through mental hoops just to get to the scant story that you've created that ties all the monsters together. A good haunted trail usually includes some kind of narrative, but that narrative needs to be a simple and direct one so that you don't have to explain to second-graders that you're a Dutch metaphysician from the Victorian era.
By the end of the night, most children had forgotten my name by the time I said "Van" and deciphered my character through my physical appearance. As a tall, skinny guy with a neck beard at the time, hundreds concluded that I was Abraham Lincoln, leading kids on a mission to be scared because that's just what former presidents do when they're out of office and lack a purpose. Considering the names that I got called when I was a kid, one who was principally interested in horror films and Halloween activities, it was kind of an honor.
Somewhere, Daniel is lurking. And that "somewhere" is probably Twitter.
For more from Daniel, check out The 5 Unexpected Downsides of Working at a Movie Theater and 5 Harsh Realities of Life as a Video Game Tournament Winner.
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