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.
“I also went to see Carrie around the same time. Looking at it now, it seems a little hokey, but the moment the hand came out of the grave, the whole cinema levitated.”
McCarthy went on to work in the Irish Film Board and was curious as to why horror films weren’t coming through. “It’s great to have culturally important films, but people like all sorts of things. I was up for making scary films when along came this film-maker Conor McMahon, who had a film called Dead Meat. I was keen to support it, so we did.”
McCarthy left the film board to embark on a screenwriting career and wrote a story called Wake Wood, which became a film adapted for the screen and directed by David Keating, and starring Aidan Gillen.
Along with his business partner, John McDonnell, he got to know the vast world of horror film-making, with its gigantic festivals, swathes of fans and endless websites dedicated to every film that comes out. “I often feel fear of death is a big thing, the ultimate unexplained. All that occult culture is about that. It’s all a version of a culture religion has come out of, trying to explain what happens when we drop dead. It’s as easy for us to come up with pleasant solutions like heaven, and come up with terrifying ones like hell.”
Tayto Park House of Horrors
The Tayto Park House of Horrors in Ashbourne, Co Meath, was created by Milo FitzGerald and Andrew Ryan.
“I think we all love to get scared in a controlled fashion,” FitzGerald says. “If you go to a haunted house, you know they’re not going to kill you, but you’ll still get a laugh out of it. It’s a good adrenaline buzz. I’m a bit of a scaredy cat, to be honest. I’ll jump at the sink if someone comes into the kitchen.”
After a haunted house reconnaissance mission in the US, FitzGerald and Ryan, under the stewardship of Tayto Park founder Raymond Coyle, designed and built an attraction that combines interior design with actors, animated figures and lighting.
“We have scary wolves who devour corpses,” says FitzGerald. “We have hanging maggot heads, colossal spiders and demonic Sylvester the guard dog.”
FitzGerald says there is a difference between being scared and being frightened. “A fright is an instant; it happens very quickly. To be scared is a heightened state of anticipation: you don’t know what you’re expecting, but you’re already kind of in it.”
Nearly 125,000 visitors haven’t made it through the Fear Factory in Niagara Falls, according to the “chicken count” on the website. Spreading the fear online is Vee Popat’s job as head of digital at Nightmares Fear Factory. “I’ve seen grown men not make it past 15 seconds. People have literally peed their pants. People have come out crying. Someone threw up once.”
Has Popat made it through? “No way! I had to go in there once to check out something, but I’ve only been through the whole thing with lights on when we had to bring some paranomal investigators in for some ghost hunting. The things that happen in the office here upstairs next to the maze, it’s the weirdest things. I could start explaining them to you but it wouldn’t even make sense.”
Popat is scared of sharks and the open water, but when it comes to Nightmares, why on Earth, if something is so terrifying, do people go through with it?
“It’s got to be why people jump out of a plane or bungee jump – that adrenaline rush,” says Popat. Getting scared must release endorphins for some people. Tonnes of people don’t like scary movies and some people love them. It has to be something chemical.”
THE FRIGHTENING FIVE: EERIE EXPEDITIONS
Tayto House of Horrors
The House of Horrors is a well-designed and fun scare, and costs just €4 once you’ve already bought a Tayto Park ticket. taytocrisps.ie/park.
Haunted Spooktacular Horror Farm
“Our job is to scare you. There is no refund.” Pretty straight-up sales pitch from this attraction in Kells, Co Meath, which is a walk-through experience featuring gore and shocks. Ticket prices range from €12 to €19, and it runs until tomorrow. hauntedspooktacular.com
Dublin Ghost Bus Tour
A great tour that is being honed all the time, bringing you to some of the spookiest parts of the city, with a good deal of history thrown in. Get scared, and learn. dublinsightseeing.ie/ ghostbus
For a paranormal trip, check out ghosthuntireland.ie, which hosts regular events in spooky places around the country, with castles being favourites.
Belfast Ghost Walk
For the Halloween period, the Belfast Ghost Walk is doing a special tour with prices ranging from £5 to £10 a head and a stroll along spooky streets with plenty of decent ghost stories. ghostwalkbelfast.com