The fear business: why it pays to scare people
Halloween might have lost some of its scare factor amid sexy nurse costumes, but making people jump is still big business
Haunted Spooktacular Horror Farm in Kells, Co Meath
Dublin Ghost Bus Tour
Milo FitzGerald at Tayto Park House of Horrors in Ashbourne, Co Meath
Visitors at Nightmares Fear Factory in Canada
When you call Nightmares Fear Factory in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, they answer the phone by saying “nightmares”. The attraction has generated a huge buzz over the past couple of years thanks to photographs on the internet and in newspapers of terrified customers making their way through a building that used to be a coffin factory. They scare people. And they’re good at it. Welcome to the business of fear.
Halloween has lost its fright factor in recent years. Something that was about ghouls, monsters and witches – because of its origins as a time of the year where spirits were said to became more active and the souls of the dead returned – has become a costume event. There is nothing scary about a sexy nurse outfit. But there is still an appetite for a good scare.
Dan O’Donoghue created the Dublin Bus Ghost Bus Tour, now a successful and popular enterprise, which began as a ghost walk. “I was taking people to the more spooky parts of Dublin – essentially the medieval areas.”
The ghost walk turned out to be scary in a different way, however, due to the number of drug users in those parts of Dublin, so O’Donoghue got the idea of bringing a proposal to Dublin Bus.
His love of all things spooky was fostered at a young age. “When we hear a ghost story when we’re small, we’re very impressionable. Going with my father out to the countryside and listening to storytellers up in the hills telling stories by the fire had me in awe. The other thing was TV, the thrillers in the 1960s, [such as] The Twilight Zone”.
Creating an atmosphere is key, he says “On our ghost tour, when we take people into the graveyard, people wonder if there’s somebody in there. There are two things going on: the suspense, one. Stephen King often referred to the old classic masters of suspense, such as the 19th- century Dublin Gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu, but generally they didn’t deliver a great monster at the end of suspense. King always said “give them the monster too”. So for our tour we have a ‘jump-out guy’ who will appear in different places.”
O’Donoghue thinks people engage with scary stuff because they’re trying to recapture the fear they experienced as a child, “that undistilled dread you experience like seeing something like The Omen”. There’s also a greater psychological mechanism at work, he feels. “We’re trying to play with facing our own mortality. It’s a game we’ve played for thousands of years. It’s in our folk tales and mythology.”
Those tales are also prominent in film, where horror is big business. Brendan McCarthy is a producer at Fantastic Films, an Irish production company specialising in niche films with a strong flavour of horror. When McCarthy was a “moody teenager”, he went to see The Exorcist alone. “I thought ‘that didn’t scare me at all’, and then when I got home I didn’t sleep at all that night. I was amazed it got to me, and I went back the following week.