Niles: Theme parks open a much-needed haunt season

After a year and a half of horrors, the season of monsters has returned. And that is wonderful news for theme park fans.

Just as the retail industry has extended the Christmas season, theme parks have extended Halloween. The Walt Disney World Resort in Florida kicked off its family-themed Halloween events last month. Now Universal is leading the haunt season with the openings of its Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood. Knott’s, Six Flags and — for the first time ever — SeaWorld will follow with its own haunt events later this month.

Haunt is the season of monsters — a time missed by many last year when the world confronted the real-life horror of the pandemic. Today, with vaccines making gatherings safer for those who have chosen to protect themselves, haunts can return. The monsters will emerge again.

A haunt might seem to the unfamiliar the last thing one would want to celebrate during a pandemic. But haunts are perhaps the most life-affirming attractions that themed entertainment offers.

Haunts take theme parks back to entertainment’s roots in live theater. People provide the scares here. Scare actors prowl fog-shrouded pathways and jump from behind doors and props inside mazes. The mazes themselves are hand-built temporary sets. There are no expensive animatronics and few screens or media effects. You don’t travel on multi-million-dollar ride systems. You walk through haunt attractions, where scare actors lurk just inches away. It’s an intimate, human experience.

When the scare comes, so do the screams … followed often by laughs. That’s because people rarely visit haunts alone. This is a time and place to bring friends — friends with whom you wish to share the joyful humiliation of getting scared in public. Haunts may be themed to death, but they celebrate life.

They also celebrate monsters. John Murdy, the creative director of Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights, tells a great story about the first time he watched the 1931 Universal film, “Frankenstein.” He watched it on TV when he was four, because weekend afternoon monster movies were the sort of thing that Generation X grew up with. When it was over, his mother found him crying. But it wasn’t because he was scared, Murdy said. It’s because he felt bad for the monster, who didn’t ask to be created and was just trying to get along in a world he did not understand.

Monsters are the ultimate outcasts. That can make them heroes to anyone who feels like an outcast in real life. Monsters also get to express all those extreme emotions that people sometimes feel when dealing with a world that does not seem to want them. And after the past year, I suspect that almost all of us are feeling those emotions.

At a haunt, monsters give you permission to scream in public. You can let it all out and feel like you belong, at last, with all the other outcasts. And that is just what many of us need right now.

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