Fear & healing in Reno
A look at all things scary, from Frightmare 2001 to letters with anthrax
The line to the haunted house was long. The kids in front of me—three 11-year-olds who go to Katherine Dunn Elementary—fidgeted, jumped and poked each other. They pestered the roving monsters—ghouls in gory masks, black capes and tall wedge-heeled rock star footwear who wove in and out of the crowd, scaring people standing in line.
“Nice boots,” sixth-grader Chris told one such costumed character.
“Is it fun to work here?” asked his friend, Lexy.
Cory reached for a KWNZ Backstreet Boys sticker that was stuck on one hunchbacked actor’s cape. But the hunchback deftly hobbled off to frighten elsewhere.
The monsters didn’t scare the three friends. Sure, the boys’ hair stood on end—but that was just the hair gel. Lexy said she was “only a little afraid” of the two haunted houses at this year’s Frightmare—the horrorfest in the parking lot of the Reno Hilton.
What other things scare Lexy?
“Not the dark, but what’s in the dark,” she said. “And probably what scares me the most is not dying, but being tortured.”
While Lexy described her fears to me, another masked entity crept up and lurked over Chris’ shoulder. The boy felt its presence, turned and pulled a small plush pink penguin from the neck of his AYSO soccer shirt, brandishing it in the ghoul’s face like a silver cross to ward off evil. The penguin’s name: Pinky.
“Pinky is our security,” Chris explained. “All of us are using him. He protects all of us.”
“When we go in there, they ask us if we want a wand to keep stuff away,” Lexy said. “We say we don’t need a wand. Pinky’s our totem. That’s like a protection.”
“He’ll do mega-peck,” Chris added.
Chris said he gave Lexy the bird as a birthday present. Lexy said she’s been sleeping with Pinky lately—to keep her safe.
“I was scared after the terrorist attack,” Lexy explained cheerfully. “Pinky talks. He reminds me to do things. Pinky tells me to brush my teeth.”
The three agreed that Pinky wanted me to interview him.
“Are you afraid?” I asked the stuffed toy.
Lexy held the bird up to her ear.
“He said no,” she relayed. “He said he’s going to protect us.”
“He grows bigger and taller, but only if our eyes are shut,” Cory added.
“Like Batman!” Chris said.
“Like Spiderman!” Cory said.
“Those are shows on Fox Kids,” Lexy explained.
Cultivating fear is tricky business. Especially if you’re looking for just enough fear—controlled, fake fear—to be entertained. When that fear escapes your control—say, you turn on the TV and watch thousands die in an act of senseless violence or open your mail and watch for suspicious powder—you can end up terrified, paranoid, unable to sleep, depressed or otherwise messed up.
“There is no such thing as paranoia,” said Hunter S. Thompson in Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie. “It is always worse than you thought.”
Thompson was talking about the unknowable political power struggles that determine world leadership. That’s scary. And like political violence, aka terrorism, it’s not something we have much power over. When my husband, Dave, and I went to this year’s Frightmare, I was thinking about fear as entertainment versus terror, the “real” thing. Attractions like Frightmare are all about controlled paranoia. At each turn, visitors are faced with carefully worded disclaimers: “Safety first. No touching of the Frightmare actors. Enter at your own risk. All incidents will be reported to the Reno Police Department. In all cases, charges will be filed per the RPD code. Thank you. Frightmare management.”
The live actor-packed haunted houses are as much a thrill ride as the Hilton’s Ultimate Rush, the bungee thing that sends jumpers careening what seems like just inches from the pavement before boinging them back up into the atmosphere. Fear can be a rush. Sometimes.
“Some people like to take risks and to survive,” said Marilyn Hausladen of Family Counseling Services in Reno. “Especially young people like to prove that nothing can get through to them.”
Hausladen told of a child who bravely entered one of the haunted houses at Frightmare but became so terrified during the trek through the dark halls that he screamed to get out.
“He said he wanted to go home,” Hausladen related. “Then, when the family was out, he said, ‘I want to go back in.'”
Though she doesn’t know why, exactly, anyone would want to expose herself to this kind of fear, it’s not like thrill seekers are facing any real danger.
“You figure you’re going to get out, because everybody else gets out,” Hausladen said.
It’s the unpredictable that terrifies. Real life features no disclaimers, no careful provisions for our safety.
I visited Frightmare 2001 on Oct. 12, the same day that officials were testing the contents of an envelope that had arrived at the Microsoft Licensing office in Reno. Employees who worked in the Sierra Pacific building, home to the Microsoft office, were distraught and confused for the better part of a week. Each new test—yes, it’s anthrax; no, it’s not anthrax; no, the employees don’t seem to be infected; wait, yes, it is anthrax; no, it’s not—seemed to fuel the panic.
Hausladen, who does critical incident debriefings in tragic situations, was called in to do some counseling. Information was provided about anthrax itself, what it is and what it does. Hausladen talked to employees about coping with their worst fears.
“Terrorism is designed to attack our emotional stability,” Hausladen said during an interview after her visit to the Sierra Pacific building. “These people who perpetrate these attacks don’t value human life like we do. They value the afterlife. But our big fear is that of loss.”
We’re terrified, not of ghosts or mutant monsters in black, but of losing a friend, a family member, a way of life, Hausladen told me. After Sept. 11, some losses were immediate.
“We now have lost our sense of safety,” Hausladen said. “We don’t have the freedom to move about as we’re accustomed to doing. Our lives won’t be the same. And a great fear of the unknown shakes our ability to cope.”
Last week, a Time magazine article about bioterrorism panic spoke of the infectious disease of terror. “Fear is bacterial. … It can spread in the air and over wires, infect the marketplace, lay waste to whole industries and leave its victims at home in bed with the covers pulled up.”
The article, by Nancy Gibbs, went on to describe anthrax scares across the nation—the jokes and unfunny episodes, like the guy using a public toilet who discovered a message on the toilet paper informing him that he was sitting in anthrax, and “you’re dead.” But officials found no sign of the bacteria in the restroom. Also, a mass e-mail warning that tells us all to stay out of shopping malls on Halloween is similarly thought to be a ruse, the article said.
“The worst part was that, since there were so many scares, so many hoaxes, we were in some ways doing this to ourselves,” Gibbs wrote.
The fear of new, unpredictable disasters isn’t going to go away any time soon, Hausladen said. Now that U.S. military forces continue to pummel Afghanistan, we fear retaliation, more surprise attacks, she said.
“Just when we were getting accustomed to what was going on in New York, there was this new [perceived] attack—and it was in Reno.”
It brought issues that had seemed far away all too close to home.
“I’ve had clients come in who said they couldn’t stop crying,” Hausladen said. “The World Trade Center tragedy had brought up all the losses they’d previously gone though, brought them to the surface. So now they were coping with more than news of terrorism. Maybe a grandmother died five years ago, but a woman never resolved it.”
A ticket to Frightmare costs $14 and gets you into the Riker’s Island Maze, the Black Hole and two haunted houses—one planned by John Burton, one of the best haunted house designers in the United States, according to Scott Seidenstricker, co-chairman of Reno Radio Reps. The corporation, which owns nine radio stations in Reno, started Frightmare as a promotion three years ago. The event grows annually. It’s about entertainment, Seidenstricker said.
“Some people like to be scared more than others,” he said, admitting that he’s one of those “others.”
“I don’t like to be scared.”
Keeping the fear manageable and fun is important for the Frightmare staff. Though the event isn’t recommended for kids under the age of 8, some families bring in kids that Seidenstricker said are just too small. Frightmare actors offer these kids glow sticks, and the actors are trained to back off with small children who are walking through the house.
On a good night, some 1,500 fright seekers buy tickets to Frightmare, where you can buy pizza by the slice and pay $6 to have a picture taken as you endure a mock execution in the sizzling, jiggling, smoking electric chair.
“That’s the big deal this year,” Seidenstricker said. “Every year, we get a lot bigger.”
As I watched, 10-year-old Hannah Bass and her friends entered the fake death chamber. A curtain was drawn, blocking the “execution” from the view of folks standing in line for one haunted house.
Frightmare actors slipped a heavy jacket onto the petite, light-haired girl. They put a leather choker around her neck and strapped her into the chair.
The executioner—Frightmare actor Mike Doan, 20, with bloody gashes on his cheeks and dark makeup around his eyes—stared at the girl during a foreboding, prerecorded death sentence: “All pleas for clemency are hereby denied. Do you have any last words?”
The chair began to move.
“I love [boy’s name withheld]!” Hannah hollered to her watching friends, who chuckled nervously.
“Zzzztttttt, zzztttt, zzzzzzzzzzttttt.”
The chair jerked violently. A cloud of dry ice mist engulfed the screaming girl. On a video screen above the chair, lightning bolts flashed.
“Justice has been served.”
Executioner Doan said this is his second year working as a Frightmare actor. Scaring people isn’t hard. It’s often just a matter of staring them down.
“I just stare,” he said. “I don’t avoid eye contact. Keep from blinking. Keep an evil smile.”
Last year, Doan happened upon the Frightmare gig while he was unemployed. He said he had lots of fun. So this year, even though he now has a job at Shopko, he came back to Frightmare.
“I get paid to frighten people,” he said. “I do it free all year long. Now I get paid.”
Our lives are plumb full of threats. Gang violence. Cancer. Unemployment. Toxic mold in your daughter’s middle school. Six-car pile-ups at your son’s high school. But these things may not cause as much panic as inexplicable acts of terrorism, Hausladen said. Even if more people have died in car accidents in the past month than were killed in New York City on Sept. 11, we’re still driving.
“We know about car accidents; we know about plane accidents,” Hausladen said. “Anthrax and terrorism we don’t have much history with. Even though we hear about terrorism overseas, we haven’t heard about it here.”
Now we’re hearing about it. Endlessly. And the shift in perception is hard to take. It’s much like dealing with the news that you have a fatal disease, Hausladen said.
“You have to go through stages of the grief cycle,” she said. “For some people, educating themselves about the disease gives them a sense of control.”
The same goes for the new threats. Information helps the coping process.
“It becomes livable, because we’ve been educated about it,” she said. “We’re going to have to assimilate the idea that more terrorist attacks may take place. We can do it. It just takes time.”
There are many ways to cope with fear. Often, our favorite coping strategy is denial, though it’s not all that useful.
“We have to face reality,” Hausladen said. “We are very used to denying things. We all deny that we’re going to die.”
The first haunted house Dave and I entered at Frightmare looked more like a haunted shed. Gore seemed to be the order of the day here. Rotating metallic skeletons were displayed as window dressing for those waiting in line.
“You can see our finished product,” said the ghoul who took our tickets. “We’re always looking for raw material.”
My husband Dave and I were instructed to “touch nothing.”
“And … if he goes down,” the ghoul told me, motioning to Dave, “keep walking. Don’t look back.”
Then we entered a strobe-lit hell. Screams. Chains. Flashing lights. Dismembered limbs. Madness.
“Don’t lose your head!”
Something of that approximate size rolled out of the darkness.
We fled around the corner, surprising a gremlin just about to take a bite of, well, something that looks like a human … leg, maybe. Creatures lurked in the shadows, skulked along the passage behind us, leaped out in our path. We passed a mutant something clawing to get out of its cage. We walked down a corridor that was strangely quiet but lined with bogus bodies like some weird cryogenic freeze chamber. Then, just when we thought we’d safely made it through, we were attacked by what sounded like machine gun fire.
While in line for the second haunted attraction, I talked to haunted shed survivor Corrin Foo, 15. She told us that she enjoyed the trek through the shed—for the conversations she had inside.
“Maybe not conversations,” she said, then paused. “It was more like miming. The door slamming was frightening. And the sudden noises. The lady. She was in this butcher house, and things were coming out of her head. Bloody things.”
Corrin, a student at Galena High School, came to Frightmare with her friend, Kelly Ferrante, also 15.
What scares these girls?
“Clowns and marionettes,” Corrin said. “The ones that don’t move much. They just stay put, hanging there. They’re happy and cheerful—and frightening. Do you agree, Kelly?”
Kelly gave her friend an odd look.
“What scares you?” I asked Kelly.
“Corrin does,” she replied.
“I scare you?” Corrin asked.
“Well, it’s just fear. You get over it.”
Hausladen has worked at Family Counseling Services since 1995. Talking with folks after the local anthrax scare was a bit different than counseling individuals after, say, a fatal tragedy.
“This was not exactly a critical incident,” she said. “Nothing had really happened.”
Since Family Counseling is the employee assistance group for workers in the Sierra Pacific building, Hausladen was asked to come and talk with workers. Staying informed is a good coping strategy, she said she told employees. She also recommended sticking with normal routines, exercising and taking care of one’s self.
“Reach out to people,” she said. “Do things that give you comfort. Pray. Listen to music. Set some goals for yourself. Be grateful. Spend more time with your family.”
And don’t forget to give yourself permission to be afraid, she added.
“Acknowledge your feelings,” Hausladen advised me during our interview. “It’s OK to be scared because it’s normal to be scared or sad.”
Sounds good, I replied. Hausladen seemed so confident and professional. I wondered if anything frightens her.
“What scares you?” I asked.
“That’s a good question.”
She paused again.
“Well, I guess the very bottom line is the fear of death ultimately,” she said. “But for me, I think it’s more about being inadequate. That’s been the fear that I’ve had throughout my life. So I tend to overcompensate.”
“Hey, that sounds like me.”
“Yes, it’s probably a very common fear,” she said.
It was a long wait in line for the larger haunted house. Finally, we went in, following the three sixth-graders.
“You go first.”
“This is crazy.”
We entered a dark hall. It became hard to take readable notes.
Something wet dripped down on our heads.
We passed a creature.
“He sneezes on you, watch out,” Chris warned me.
“Cory!” Lexy screamed.
“Get off me!”
“This is not so scary…Oh jeez, oh jeez!”
“Just keep moving!”
We entered a room lit by a black light. Pinky’s fur glowed, and the kids stopped to check it out. Then part of the wall came alive and reached for us, zombie-like. We screamed and ran.
“Don’t look at it!”
“Just keep moving!”
Finally, we found ourselves back in the safety of the crowded parking lot.
“That wasn’t actually that scary,” one of the kids lied.
“I’m hungry,” Chris said.
Luckily, pizza sold by the slice was not far away.