In scary times, Halloween is just pleasantly spooky

Family Matters

October 31, 2004|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

More than ever, Halloween is the day it's safe to be scared.

The world may already seem a dangerous place, with terrorists plotting attacks, insurgents wreaking havoc in Iraq, and the presidential candidates each warning of dire consequences if the other is elected.

And yet today thousands of Americans will don gory masks, shriek in haunted houses, and trip among the tombstones and skeletons in their yards to celebrate Halloween in the semi-frightening fashion that went out of style after the Sept. 11 attacks three years ago.

Halloween "is back," said Chris Riddle, a senior design consultant at American Greetings, who monitors Halloween trends. "There are all kinds of horrifying masks that are out there again. It's called escapism. You can go back and do what you used to do as a kid."

At the Spirit Halloween store on Merritt Boulevard in Dundalk, kids are asking for scarier stuff, says manager Bill Clark. It's been a year of films - and costumes - that pit horror icons against each other: Alien vs. Predator, Freddy vs. Jason.

"All I've had in the last month is the 10-year-old boys that want the Alien vs. Predator costume," Clark said. Girls, he said, want to be pirates as well as Disney princesses.

Adults are getting more excited about the holiday, too. For them, scary-sexy has been in: At Spirit, the Graveyard Fairy for women, with little black wings and a short pink skirt, is flying off the shelves.

Lesley Bannatyne, author of several books on the history of Halloween, has noticed the resurgence of the holiday's scary side, but with a twist: Now the fake horror comes with a narrative. Haunted houses are more likely to have tales and legends as part of the show. Tombstones in yards now come with names and stories.

"Rather than it being about fear or terror, it's now more about being creative and performing," Bannatyne said.

"It seems to me that the people who are buying what we would call the terror-filled things are buying them because they're going to a party where they want to play a role. Or their yard becomes a stage set, and they animate it for their family and friends."

On a recent Friday night, several employees of nearby Fort Meade stood in line for the "House of Vampyres" at Bennett's Curse, a haunted attraction at Arundel Mills Mall. Inside, they screamed and clutched each other's backs as make-believe ghouls darted from the shadows, desiccated skulls littered the floor, and a Grim Reaper figure silently followed them.

Kristie Rodriguez, 34, who lives at Fort Meade and works for the Air Force, said it was her first visit to a haunted house in years. Until recently, she'd had a brother serving in Iraq. The make-believe ghouls offered a fun escape.

"It's an adrenaline rush without being in any kind of danger," she said. "No one in there is actually going to hurt you."

Marianne Jetter, a 20-year-old student at the University of Maryland, called Bennett's Curse "a safe place to be scared."

Her boyfriend spent seven months serving in Iraq, and another two in Kuwait. "He told me stories that definitely could make me a lot more scared than a haunted house," she said.

Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association, says people who have had loved ones in dangerous situations, or been there themselves, may actually be soothed by facing something frightening that they can control.

"They may well be saying, psychologically, `We are going to overcome this,'" Farley said. "One way of doing that is to confront these fears, even if it's simulated as in a ghoulish Halloween exhibit."

Debbie Zeller has always relished the holiday. Her lawn on Broadmoor Road in Homeland is full of werewolf masks, tissue-paper ghosts, and disembodied hands and feet. Tombstones are marked in memory of characters like "Sean Snake - He slithered to his grave," and "Bertha Butcher - Beware, lover of fresh meat."

Zeller and her husband, David, have put out the display for the last 20 years. Tonight, she'll add a fog machine and a skeleton that screeches in a coffin.

"People love what they love, and it's always been my favorite holiday," the 50-year-old grandmother said. "I try to make it fun."

This year, she said, the Halloween display is a welcome distraction. Her son, Michael, has signed up to become a Marine after high school graduation next June, and she knows he may be sent overseas to serve in a dangerous place.

And even though Zeller admires how her son is "standing up for his country," that is a possibility that scares his mother to death.

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