Pitch-dark halls, creepy noises intermingling with shrieks of horror, a feeling that something is lurking in the shadows, itching to make your heart stop: These are all characteristics of a time-tested Halloween tradition, the haunted house.
I, for one, have always been a little too much of a wuss to go through terror-inducing tours.
However, for those that like to feel frightened, haunted houses are a spooky season staple that can be enjoyed annually.
Across the United States, there are different kinds of haunted attractions to look into attending: Haunted houses, haunted prisons, haunted mansions, haunted hayrides, the list goes on. And right now, as Halloween approaches, is the perfect time to plan a visit.
The history of the haunted house
There are accounts of paranormal activity dating from the ancient world up until present day, Owen Davies, a contributor to BBC’s HistoryExtra and paranormal historian, told USA TODAY.
“The vast majority of people die inside their homes, so in one sense it is not surprising that many stories of haunted houses have been recorded over the centuries,” said Davies.
The home was where the dead were mourned, he explained, and where memories of their presence often remained.
If you are looking to really be scared, you can visit one of these real haunted places. Buzz60’s Keri Lumm shares a few.
“For skeptics in the past and present, the house was obviously the center of hauntings because it was where people slept and dreamed of the dead, or where people lay drunk, drugged or hallucinating in their sickbeds,” Davies added.
Sometimes, homes have attracted a reputation for housing phantom occupants because they were left empty for a long period of time.
The thought, Davies explained, was that if people were to fail to occupy a human space, then external forces would move in.
“Perhaps a mysterious gang of criminals, but maybe also supernatural visitants such as witches, boggarts and ghosts,” he added. “Some houses lay abandoned because they were thought to be haunted in the first place.”
And while haunted houses have had a place in history for centuries, they became an attraction a bit more recently.
According to an article from the Smithsonian, haunted houses originated, in some format, in London in the early 19th century. At the time, the public was exposed to new forms of entertainment – exhibits of the creepier variety.
In 1802, the article said, Marie Tussaud put on a display of decapitated wax figures of French notables including Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI, Robespierre and Marat.
They were eerily true figures, since Tussaud had created death masks for the real people after they faced the guillotine. The display was called “Chamber of Horrors,” a name that has stuck around, according to National Geographic.
As time progressed, the eerie attractions began to evolve around the world. At The Grand Guignol in France, performance art became gory under the leadership of Max Maurey in the early 20th century.
“He (Maurey) measured the success of a play by the number of people who fainted during its performance, and, to attract publicity, hired a house doctor to treat the more fainthearted spectators,” the theater’s website stated.
And in the United States, during the Great Depression, parents began arranging haunted houses. It started as a way to keep their sons off the streets during the holiday that could become quite rowdy.
Over time, it was integrated into the culture of Halloween and popularized by Disney, according to the Smithsonian.
Haunted or manufactured horror?
What you decide to endure as a visitor splits in a categorical sense. There are haunted houses specifically designed to scare visitors, and those in which something sinister lurks of its own accord.
Some of the haunted houses open to visitors have been home to reported paranormal activity for decades.
Take the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, for example, which is open year-round.
The 160-room mansion built by Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms fortune, was built with odd features including doors that open into walls and staircases that lead to the ceiling. But the mystery doesn’t stop there.
“Guests, employees and even paranormal investigators have experienced strange phenomena including hearing footsteps, voices, cold spots,” Walter Magnuson, general manager of Winchester Mystery House, said.
There have even been reported sightings of the “Wheelbarrow Ghost,” whom they believe was a worker on the estate, Magnuson said.
On the other hand, attractions like Statesville Haunted Prison in Lockport, Illinois, have been specifically designed to horrify anyone who enters.
The (fictional) haunted prison, open through Nov. 2, is not intended for “children or the weak,” general manager Kaity Siegel-Grimmenga said.
“Statesville takes you through the twisted chambers of the darkest creatures ever imprisoned,” she explained.
The tour, which lasts for about an hour, features more than 175 live “prisoners” in 40 rooms, “attacking you at every step.”
Haunted houses carry varying characteristics, monsters and themes, and some rotate what theme the attraction carries, sometimes even yearly.
As for which kind is spookier, that’s up to the visitor.
Follow Morgan Hines on Twitter: @MorganEmHines.
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