Nothing in this hospital seems up-to-date. One step into the waiting room and I can already tell that it hasn’t received proper care in years. Stained, dry wallpaper is splitting and falling off the walls. The plants are dusty and covered in cobwebs. If they weren’t fake, they’d be long dead by now, much like the man sitting near me.
He’s boney, ivory white, and unmoving, but still holds an affectionate arm around the shoulders of a young girl sitting with him. She’s clearly upset. Streams of bloody tears pour from her eyes and yet, a wicked looking smile is spread across her face.
There’s a scraggly, unkempt nurse here, but she doesn’t appear interested in her decaying patients.
“What’s the difference between my mother and an onion?” she asks me, hardly able to stop herself from laughing long enough to speak. I can’t think of a proper answer. She gives the punchline, “I cry when I cut an onion.” Her crazy laughter continues.
She shows me the door out of the waiting room. I step into pitch darkness. The door shuts behind me, an alarm bell rings, and the real decent into terror begins.
Despite my anxiety, I have the knowledge that I am completely safe. Before I even entered the house, the host at the front door told me the rules. No running, keep your phones in your pockets, and no touching the actors, they won’t touch you. It’s all fun and games when you’re waiting your turn to enter a haunted house, a Halloween attraction, but once you’re inside, the illusion of actors, scenes, and props can feel all too real. Walking through the dark halls from one room to another may be disorienting and filled with tension, but for people with a severe phobia, it can be a debilitating experience.
“If I was ever bad at dinner sometimes my mom would send me up to my room and she’d just never turn on the light and so, I’d just be a little kid sitting in the dark, screaming because she would close the door and it would be too dark to ever find the handle. And every time I could like, see my closet, just the outline of it, I would think that there was something there, so I started to get scared of it and I kept hearing noises so, I would scream louder, but they just told me to shut up half the time, so now I’m like, scared of things in the dark, but not just the dark itself.” -Meaghan Fisher, daughter to the owner of this haunted house, has no difficulty navigating the darkness when she knows it’s her friends lurking in the shadows. When she’s home alone at night, the dark becomes little threatening, but manageable.
Fear is not always something met with laughs after the fact. On Halloween, however, fear is widely celebrated. Grotesque monsters, vile scenes, and pretend near-death experiences are all horrifying in the moment. But once one leaves the exit of a haunted house and realizes that it nothing but costumes, props, and tricks, terror becomes fun. Not everyone has the mindset to enjoy fear though.
According to Sean O’Neil, a mental health therapist and social worker, fear, at its core, is a base emotion – a reaction to physical pain, psychological trauma or threats of danger. In turn, it pushes an urge to confront the danger head-on, or run away from it. This is also known as the fight-or-flight response. Most often, this is an indicator of immediate danger, triggering a system of self-preservation in order to keep oneself safe.
One of the common fears among people is death, which is a fairly reasonable thing to be afraid of and is generally the root of many other fears. A person who is afraid of flying may be afraid that the plane will crash, or a person with a fear of dogs may be afraid that a dog will bite and hurt them. When a fear goes beyond common sense though, to the point where it interferes with daily life, it becomes a problem. This is a phobia.
Even an activity that is routine, such as driving a car, can be terrifying to some. In 2011, more than 32,300 people in the United States died in car crashes. When any one of those deaths could have been yourself, it’s no wonder people have a debilitating fear of driving, or hodophobia, a fear of travel. To some people, driving a car can be great fun or simply something you do to get from point A to point B, but to others, there is almost nothing they could want to do less.
“So, we were in California with with my friend and there was a spider on his arm. He didn’t know that it was there, so I was looking at it and you could see its little teeth bite his arm in the skin and he starts bleeding. It turned all green. Just thinking about it, seeing it, tearing his skin.” – Brendyn Maschmeier, one of the youngest in the haunt.
There are ways of dealing with a fear. One of the first steps is to determine if it’s even a real problem. The key is if a fear is interfering with daily life.
“If it’s not effecting anyone, then it’s not a problem,” O’Neil said.
In Maschmeier’s case, he has the luck of currently living in Alaska, where spiders are tiny and rare. For him, spiders aren’t an issue in his day-to-day life and isn’t a critical problem that needs to be dealt with.
In the case that a fear does become a severe problem for someone, there are treatment options that can be employed. The most common is desensitizing. Small steps are taken to help someone become more comfortable being around their fear.
O’Neil spoke about a patient who was afraid of planes. First, he had them think about planes and flying to see how the mere idea of planes effected them. They continued to slowly move closer to planes. Looking at pictures of planes, driving out to the airport to listen to planes landing and taking off, going inside the airport, and finally they managed to get into a plane and fly in one. Although, they did have the assistance of medication for their first flight, which is also an option for anxiety. It took a long time to get from thinking to flying, but this gradual system has worked for many people.
“Well, say about 7 years ago, we were driving around in the town of Rexburg, Idaho. We came to a two-way stop, with no stop sign going past us. Anyway, we saw that the only car on the road was all the way across the street by at least a block and it was at a red light, so we proceeded to go forward. Now, before this experience I was not terribly keen on driving in the first place. I’m not a terribly strong driver. This truck that we spotted that was at the red light or was going to come to the red light proceeded to speed through said red light and broadside our car. This left me with palpable feelings of anxiety since and I’ve been slowly working off, but I still really hate driving. I can be in a car just fine now, but I still hate driving.” -Jared Payne, an actor in the haunted house who plays Butcher, a pig faced man. His car was wrecked, but he and his wife, Asmereet, weren’t seriously hurt. Before, if he was a passenger, he had to close his eyes and try not to think about being in a car when going around corners. He has been working off his anxiety through being driven and feels better about driving now, but still prefers not to if he doesn’t have to.
In a haunted house, where the threat of death is non-existent in reality, people can feel the thrill of being in danger without ever actually having to be within harm’s way. However, in a dimly lit kitchen where human flesh hangs out to dry on the walls, a refrigerator stocked with freshly severed skulls and arms emits a sickly yellow light, and who-knows-what fills bowls scattered around the table, any phobia will alter the unsettling scene to petrifying dread. No one has to live with horror being a regular part of their lives. It may take a lot of time and effort, but when a huge pig-man chases visitors through hanging body-bags and out of the asylum’s darkness into the darkness of the moon-lit night, hopefully, they can all come out laughing.