When I was in sixth grade, I went to my first commercial (as in, non-neighbor’s-darkened-basement-strewn-in-cotton-cobwebs-and-paper-bats) haunted house.
It was the ‘90s, the heyday of those cheap, ill-produced FrightFezts and ScReAm ZoNes that sprouted in derelict shopping centers every fall, and you weren’t cool — by middle school standards, anyway — if you didn’t go to at least one. So my friends and I skipped trick-or-treating that year, stood in an hour-long line and paid $10 of our parents’ money to see what all the hype was about.
When we emerged about 15 minutes later, I wished I’d gone trick-or-treating instead. My friends were pumped — screaming and giggling — and, wanting to fit in, I played along. But really, the entire thing had bored me. I mean, toy chain saws? Fog machines? Cheap makeup? Yawn.
Maybe I was just a really jaded 11 year old, or maybe it was just a really crappy haunted house — this was before they became the multi-story productions they are today, after all — but there was nothing in that Hobby Lobby-cum-House of Horrors that scared me in the slightest.
And, while I haven't been to a haunted house since, I don’t think it would be much different for me these days, either. I spend the entirety of slasher movies critiquing plot holes and poor acting. I’m not really into the whole zombie trend. When the electricity goes out, I worry about my frozen foods melting, not a potential ghost attack.
Increasingly, it seems I’m not alone. I read an article last week about the scaring difficulties haunted houses have been facing lately. Despite spending thousands on machines, effects, masks and professional actors, the houses’ operators are watching a lot of their guests walk away unperturbed.
The haunted house operators blamed technology. Better movie and video game special effects have upped the ante considerably, they said. And yeah, okay. Maybe. But as a longtime non-scared, I think the better culprit might be real life.
Because, the more I look back on it, the more I’m convinced that my blasé attitude toward that strip-mall haunted house (and all cheap frights) was entirely due to the fact that I’d seen a lot of things scarier than pimply, dressed-up teenagers jumping out from behind cardboard trees.
By the time I was 11, one of my grandmas had died. The other was in failing health, requiring my mom to juggle nursing home bills and the care of a senior and three daughters.
Our house had been robbed a few years earlier, and they’d run off with my life savings ... which was $20 in an old Folgers coffee can.
And I’d traveled extensively with my somewhat directionally challenged family, which meant we often got lost in the bad neighborhoods of big cities. A homeless man, dressed in nothing but a garbage bag and asking for spare change, had chased me down a street in New York just a few months earlier.
So my lack of fear didn’t come from extraordinary bravery of some kind — I was scared of miller moths until I was well into college — but probably from simply knowing that rubber masks and strobe lights couldn’t hold a candle to most of the things real life had in store.
Following one of our country’s worst economic downturns and given the employment, retirement and long-term care struggles most Americans continue to face — to say nothing of the real-life tragedies we’ve experienced, from hurricanes, tsunamis, mass shootings and the like — I suspect a lot of other people have started to realize the same. We’re living at a time when you’ll get more screams from people with a bank statement than a bludgeon.
Part of that makes me glad; it’s a sign that we’re finally facing facts, I think. But it’s also incredibly sad, this idea that our reality has outpaced the worst horrors we could previously imagine.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. If my theory’s even slightly correct, I think it also proves the dramatic need for the advice of insurance agents and financial advisors these days. With a suitable plan in place, a lot of people could avoid the real-life horrors of unpaid bills and underfunded retirements.
And the faster producers can ease clients’ worst fears, the sooner they can get back to freaking out over corn-syrup blood. Or, if they’re like me, making fun of it.
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