The anatomy of fear

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Secrets of a haunted house revealed

Nightmare Mansion is full of scary scenes that prey on all of the senses. Photo credit: Lindsey Linge

Nightmare Mansion is full of scary scenes that prey on all of the senses. Photo credit: Lindsey Linge

A good scare is an October tradition. For some, that might include rewatching Ghostbusters, but for those craving something more interactive, haunted houses are a Halloween-time must.

But what makes a good scare? Sean Murray, one of the owners of Nightmare Mansion and a teacher of fear, explained just what creates a sensation of horror.
“The problem that we found in most haunted houses is that people build an effect that they want you to look at and they think that that is going to be scary by itself, Murray says. “But that is just a decoy. The surprise or a scare needs to come from something else.”
He explains that tension is what really makes a difference.

“A tense person is easier to scare,” he says. “There are laboratory experiments on what’s called startle potentiation. All that is is that if I build the expectation and then startle you, then the startle is stronger than if I just do it.”

Murray says that Nightmare Mansion was based on what he calls the five laws of fear. To give away all of them would be taking away too much of the surprise, but one is to prey on multiple senses.

“You need to get the eyes, the ears, touch, the smells and even taste to overwhelm the senses, keep someone busy and then sneak up and do the scare,” he says. “We’ve spent a lot of time making sure we’re not just visually entertaining.”

There is constant sound, unexpected smells, a few things to touch and you can even taste the dirt in the air during the graveyard section. “All of those senses have to come together.”

At Nightmare Mansion, the experience is all-encompassing. Actors hang from the ceiling and the floor changes. Walls aren’t always what they seem and at times, it’s easy to get disoriented. It is “a 360 degree experience,” as Murray calls it.

The haunt is divided into four sections, each more and more frightening. The first section of the haunt, “Nightmare in 3D,” makes you feel like you are walking in outer space. It is easy to get caught up in the visuals, courtesy of nationally renowned 3D artist Stuart Smith. This distraction allows for the actors to more easily catch people off guard, which elevates the experience. Overall, however, this section is not very frightening, as each individual section is increasingly scary.

As the ante is upped, the actors become more and more involved. The next section, “Haunted Mansion,” features a family you don’t want to come home to. This is followed by “Taken Asylum,” a mental hospital where the patients have taken control and are out to take you as well. The final scare, “The Dungeon,” hosts a group of criminals too vile to be found in any other part of the haunt.

Despite the high-quality visuals, the strength of this haunted house lies in the actors. As someone who didn’t jump once during THE RING and slept soundly the next night, I’m nearly impossible to scare. I found my enjoyment in discussing my blood type with a vampire, negotiating with murderers and bargaining to buy a used coffin. The actors stay beautifully in character, scaring some patrons and amusing others.

Frank Rogers has been a Halloween actor for eight years. When asked about the appeal of haunted houses, he says, “I think it’s different for everyone. Some people enjoy the adrenaline rush. Other people like the artistic aspect. That’s why I like it.”

So whether at home or at a haunt, for adrenaline or for art, getting scared is just part of the holiday spirit.


What: Nightmare Mansion
Where: 5600 S. Redwood Road, Taylorsville
When: Now through Oct. 31
Time: 7:30-10:00 p.m. weekdays; 7:30-Midnight Friday and Saturday
Cost: $12-18
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