Monday, October 12, 2020

Haunted House Jobs and Modern News Coverage

I once developed a very effective tactic that makes this whole mess seem really familiar. Through my teens and 20s, I usually spent each October working for Universal Studios, Six Flags, and Riverside Park haunted houses as an actor, designer, and makeup artist. My job was to scare people. Not because I like scaring people. The job was to sell more tickets than the rival houses, and scaring was the way to do that.

Business depends on the level of emotional agitation (and pee odor) of the people seen exiting the building. Potential guests watch as people exit, deciding if they should go in. The more jittery and excited the people look as they flee the scene, the more tickets are sold.

The scare formula adapts as the guest (target) adapts. In the first few dimly lit rooms, some spider webs and creepy sounds raise the anxiety of people who are afraid they’re going to embarrass themselves in front of their date. But they adjust. When they enter a room where a demented figure is covered in blood and gore, it’s expected. You might get a grin from them but it’s just a warm up to set a base line. We can’t have people leaving the house saying “yea that was creative lighting and makeup”. We need their heart rate up.

They’re entering each room expecting to see some kind of monster, a monster that they rationally understand to be a person in a costume. So you have to move faster than their brain. Simply jump out of an obvious hiding place and make a loud noise a little too close to their face. They jump and/or scream (and/or punch you in the face) but then remind themselves that this was part of the plan. “damn it I knew you were in there” they laugh. Their adrenalin is now in their system for the next several minutes.

Next room, let them spot yet another obvious hiding place. They’re looking for it from the moment they peek through the doorway and they’ll see it immediately. They walk in, acting brave because they see that human size barrel over there with a loose fitting lid. It’s 10 steps away. They have 10 steps to prepare their nerves. “Bring it” they’re thinking. But 7 steps away is where you actually jump out from the other direction. “Damn it” they say as they run laughing past the empty decoy barrel.

In the next room, they’re expecting you to jump out from anywhere and so their feet are bolted to the floor. Thats when you distract them with something shiny. A special effect. Something impressive and sorta beautiful. Freddy coming out of a mirror was one of my favs. They stare at the impressive installation art and their brain has to switch to processing what they’re seeing. They unwittingly unbolt their feet from the floor. “Wow, how did they make it look so ..” You jump out while they’re in mid processing. 

By this point, friends are clutching each other. Feet are being stepped on as they stay close to one another like a pack of prey animals. Hands are being squeezed tightly. They suspect that at any point their reaper tour guide will turn on them for a cheep startle. The only thing they trust in the entire room are the other guests.

They’re ready as they enter the next room. They keep a 360 degree view, knowing that the next scare will be too stealthy to spot in time. “It’s definitely NOT going to come out of that crashed UFO over there. what about that hay bail though..” And that’s why giant spiders descend from the ceilings. “DAMN IT! Now I have to watch the ceiling too!!!”

By this point, the jumpers and screamers have migrated to the back of the pack and the tough guys are leading the way. It’s time to walk them down a short dark hallway where nothing happens. Wink. They make it through the hallway surprisingly unalarmed.

Next, they’re walking through a scenic room with a lot to visually take in. Any one of those structures could fit a person in it. Anything could be a robotic critter. The glowing pickle jar is pissing them off because they don’t know what it means. They’re guarding themselves from every little object that might suddenly move. They’re still stepping on feet and knocking into each other when suddenly one of them lets out a new kind of blood curdling scream. It’s not the usual quick scream followed by a laugh and an F bomb. Instead, it continues and escalates. 

The people who don’t see it yet are extra alarmed because they don’t know what’s happening yet. “WHERE? I DON’T SEE IT!!!”. They look up to the ceiling and see nothing. The floor, nothing. Back to the details of the room, nothing.  This all takes 2 seconds, the screaming elevates as the screamer knocks everyone out of their personal space trying to escape it. And that turns everyone’s attention inward to the person screaming. They see that in the middle of their group is a person that they did not enter the house with. Maybe a zombie or Frankenstein or whatever (doesn’t matter). The point is that when someone clutches an arm for comfort and that arm is attached to a stranger, it F’s your brain up for a minute. 

When you were a kid, did you ever follow your parents through a store and then look up to see that they’re not your parents? You peed a little, right?

Now everyone is entering the final room. They are afraid to fan out but also afraid to get too close to each other. Their brain is multitasking the room and each other. Someone will inevitably get startled by a chair or a fire extinguisher. It doesn’t matter what happens in this room. Nothing could happen and that would be terrifying.

Suddenly they find themselves exiting the house and surrounded by regular people in a public space. There’s one kid walking quickly with their head down and their arms crossed. Some frat boys are loudly defending the accusations from their buddies that they “totally jumped like a little bitch”. Some big tough biker is yelling “HAAA HA I totally thought that fire extinguisher on the wall was an alien spider zombie for some reason! HAAAA!” And the shortest person usually has cotton candy in their hair.

New people outside see this and decide it’s worth the admission fee. 

Switching gears here. You know that the people who bring you the news are not paid to bring you the news, right? They’re paid to sell advertising. They, like me, don’t particularly want to scare you. It’s just how they make money. They need you to watch constantly, and nothing can do that (not even scandals and kittens) as successfully as fear. And when you adjust to the traditional monsters, they do what I did in the haunted house. They get you to fear each other. 

We’re going to find the exit. White supremacy is not unbeatable. Diseases can be cured. Giving people their rights does not take your rights away. Police want to be fixed. Poor people want to contribute. The Earth can grow back. Protests rarely cause fires. Addictions can be kicked. You WILL eventually get your phone to sync with the bluetooth speaker. It’s all fixable. We just need to stop fearing each other long enough to get to the next door. The first step is to assemble ONE news source that is paid for by our taxes and does not sell ads. While the government has to pay for it, the do not get to have any say in the reporting. It's a process that will have to evolve with many levels of oversight. We need a central source of fact checked information so that you are not arguing with people who live in an alternate reality. Fox and CNN and everyone else can still do whatever they want, but they will be clearly labeled as opinion and entertainment. 

Until then, expect Fox to show you looped footage of burning riots while they tell you that this is "Antifa" and everyone on the left is a terrorist. Meanwhile the other side will show you that the KKK is half of the country and anyone in the center or right is there because they hate women, people of color, and the environment. The truth is, these are all outliers. A small minority of people want to harm you. Everyone else just wants to go back to their video games. It's TV ratings and click counts who need you to jump at the sight of your own neighbors and family members. 

Your enemy likely wants the same thing as you, you just can’t agree on the facts. This needs to happen before anything else gets fixed.

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