Armed with high-tech gizmos and increasingly inventive special effects, the "fright" industry is reaching new highs - or, depending on your point of view, new lows - in its ability to scare the daylights out of young people.
From teen horror flicks like "Scream" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer" to "bloody" monsters prowling theme parks, competition is fierce to provide the biggest scare - and attract more kids and their parents.
"Every year, the 'scare bar' gets higher," says Brian Novy, talent supervisor at Six Flags Magic Mountain here, where 200 hired ghouls prowl the park this Halloween season, compared with last year's 120.
With Halloween just two days away, a willingness to pay for the privilege of being scared silly indicates that most people see it all as good, clean fun. But some argue that the new intensity of the experience can have a long-term detrimental impact on teens and pre-teens - and perhaps on society.
"The harmful effect is the cumulative impact," says Gregory Smith, associate professor of child psychology at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. Repeated exposure to "frightening images of destruction or harm to other individuals" doesn't necessarily lead children to imitate what they see, he says, but it can result in a hardening that makes kids become "more callous toward one another."
He does not single out a particular TV show, movie, or video, but says he's describing the overall trend toward such attitudes showing up in entertainment aimed at ever younger audiences.
Robert Myers, a cultural anthropologist at Alfred University in New York, says that, for kids, fun and fright are often linked. The downside comes when children can't handle their fears and run afoul of this emphasis on fear as fun.
"We've socialized them into thinking that if they don't think it's fun, something's wrong with them," he says. "We've made fun obligatory, no matter what is happening around them or inside them." This can produce "boxed-in emotions" or behavioral extremes, Dr. Myers adds.
Today's graphic depiction of blood-letting and gore is of concern to some parents, who look back on the comparably mild Halloween-season experiences of their own childhoods.
To Anne Cochran, who accompanied her preteen son to Six Flags Magic Mountain over the weekend, the key is parental involvement and moderation. Letting kids get too scared, she says, is "like giving [them] too much candy or money. They'll just crash."
For this mom, a trip or two each year to a scary theme park is enough. "All these things are similar, seeing scary or violent images," she says. "Too much of any of it creates a monster of a child."
Moderation and parental monitoring are important balancing factors, agrees Myers. Too much frightening imagery, he argues, crowds out other images - such as "kindness, tolerance, patience, gentleness, peacefulness" - that society has a vested interest in cultivating in young people. "We're replacing calm behavior with intensified, extreme behavior."
But it's undeniable that the growing fright industry is a lucrative one. Halloween now ranks second only to Christmas in overall sales, topping $4 billion last year. Theme parks, community centers, even zoos have begun to reap the reward of an extended summer season that now closes after Halloween rather than Labor Day.
Here at Magic Mountain, the foggy stretches of "Monster Alley" feature almost double the number of live actors as last year. Bloody and howling, these professional frightmongers are following instructions to deliver their biggest, best scares.
"We try to make it the scariest Halloween ever," says the park's Mr. Novy, whose job it is to stay ahead of the competition.
Of course, concern is not universal about the effect of today's gruesome chills and thrills. Kids "don't really believe this stuff," says Ray Browne, professor emeritus of popular culture at Bowling Green University in Ohio. "They're much more sophisticated than were our parents or their parents hundreds of years ago."
A quick survey of the park-goers here suggests some of this is true. "It's fun to be scared as long as you know it's not real," says Kara Robards, who is on the cusp of becoming a teenager. "Being lost in the woods for real, that's not fun."
But Myers, for one, sees another danger with kids in society, and buying into the fright industry is just one example. The real problem, he says, is the trend toward passive consumption.
"We're creating a world where kids are packaged and sold everything, including their fear," Myers says. "They have to buy something to express themselves about anything."
This sort of passivity may be the biggest difficulty of all. "Where is the creativity, the real person," he asks, "when all you're doing is consuming?"
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society