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Friendly Fright

Michael Davis Photo

Almost as much as anticipating Christmas, my kids look forward to Halloween. And it’s not just because of the candy. (Really.) They like the costumes and the decorations, especially the scary ones.

While their costumes have never turned out to be very scary, they do like planning a haunting addition to our house decorations each October. More than that, they like seeing as many scary things as they can. They beg to go to Dougherty’s Masquerade, the costume shop in Syracuse, just so they can look at the masks dripping with fake blood, plastic swords and rubber snakes.

Once there, however, they avoid some masks. Too scary, they say. Could get nightmares, they remind me, while I’m roaming the aisles trying to avoid looking at the phony rodents. With age (theirs, not mine), they take more risks and check out more masks, like the ones with a fake ax sticking out of the hair.

Why do they do this? Why do so many of us enjoy a bit of friendly fright?

Some research has shown that we humans enjoy different levels of stimulation, and getting scared is one type. Those who shy away from the scary scenes get enough stimulation to their brains in other ways. 

One Baldwinsville mom told me about a birthday party her sons were invited to last year during October. The highlight of the party for 8- and 9-year-olds was to be a walk through the haunted house at Chuck Hafner’s Farm Market and Garden Center in North Syracuse. (Younger children are encouraged to go during the day. Older “thrill seekers” should try it at night when the live monsters are out and about, according to Hafner’s Web site, www.chuckhafner.com.)

On the day of the party, only five of the 10 children wanted to go into the haunted house. When those five and some parents arrived at Hafner’s, only two partygoers actually went through the house with one parent.

It reminds me of extra helpings of dessert for a child: It looks good, but it doesn’t always go down that well. And like a stomachache, the effect can be nightmares.

But I’m impressed with the children who knew themselves well enough to say they didn’t want to go through the haunted house. And I appreciate the atmosphere that didn’t put pressure on them to go through anyway.

Rhonda Mandel, who researched child development as a psychology professor at SUNY Oswego, says the key is, “You’ve got to know your kid.” It’s all about individual differences, explains Mandel, who’s now a dean. That’s the phrase social scientists love to use to examine and explain why we humans don’t move in lockstep. As individuals, we have differences.

As a mother, Mandel says she saw this firsthand. One child loved the scary rides and haunting experiences; the other hid under his blanket, just where she’d rather be, too.

But I wonder: Is this good for my kids (and me)? It probably varies.

Amy Nathanson, a media researcher at Ohio State and a friend of mine from graduate school, has studied how children react to scary, violent and otherwise negative messages in TV shows and movies. Parents play an important role in how their children deal with fear-provoking scenes, according to Nathanson, a mother of two.

Her advice from the research findings is that with younger children parents should “actively mediate.” That means parents should discuss what they and their children just saw in a show and, most important, the parents should ask questions about the content. Asking questions—not lecturing—works better with children as they get older, too.

For instance, I’d like to ask my children, now ages 7 and 8: How come we rarely see Miley Cyrus doing homework or reading a book on Hannah Montana? That’s probably too heavy-handed a question, but that’s the idea. Try to get kids thinking about how real the images are that they see on TV and in movies. It works with some scary pictures, too.

Whether it works with the haunted house this fall, I don’t know. But I can’t wait to find out.

My children will want to try. They’ve been on a mission to conquer haunted houses or, more accurately, their fears about haunted houses.

It started three years ago when we were visiting friends at the beach in Delaware. The boardwalk there features a haunted house as part of its Funland. We climbed aboard a black cart and pushed through the dark doors into what, we did not know.

Both my children spent much of the ride with their faces pressed into me or covered by their hands. They announced whenever they looked up, which wasn’t often for my then 5-year-old daughter. Last year they both looked up much more; my son hardly blinked at the skeleton that sits up in the coffin as we go by or the bus that appears ready to crash into our cart.

Then came Disney World in January. The Haunted Mansion stood like a mountain for my daughter to climb. My husband and I each walked with one child as we crowded into the first room where the walls move and the lights go out. Scary and funny at the same time, I experienced it differently with my daughter at my side. As we moved to the next stage in the “house,” she said she didn’t want to go on.

She meant it. So we told a Disney worker who showed us to one of those “secret” exit doors just before getting into the riding carts.

We waited outside for my husband and son. My son emerged victorious. “It’s fun, Annie!” he told her. She contemplated the ride the rest of the night. The next day, she was geared up to take on the Haunted Mansion. We marched right in and she made it to the riding carts. I tried to explain when she seemed scared. “Look, it’s not really a person in that crystal ball. It’s like the movie we saw, only a light image.” This time we all emerged victorious and got right back in line to do it again.

When it came time to select a special souvenir, Annie chose a big book all about the Haunted Mansion ride. It contains elaborate sketches of scary scenes and goblins all along the ride, comparisons to the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland in California, and more comparisons to the Disney movie Haunted Mansion with Eddie Murphy. (For the record, this column is not meant to be a Disney ad.)

When we returned to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware in August, Annie and my son, MacIntyre, scoffed at the Haunted House ride while we stood in line to show it who’s boss. Eyes wide open, we rode it twice. At one point, when on the ride at night, each cart glides out onto a special corridor that overlooks the boardwalk and its pedestrians. After glancing at the moon, we turned to the people below and screamed our loudest—just so they’d know how scary that haunted house really is.                                                                

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York