Haunted houses around the country this Halloween are toning down the terror following the real-life horrors of Sept. 11.
Some attractions were scrapped altogether because their themes were too evocative of the attacks. Among them: the proposed $2 million Fright House in Washington, featuring an Escape From the Pentagon scene that was dreamed up before the terrorist attacks.
Others have eliminated stray body parts and other macabre touches.
At Castle Park in Riverside, Calif., general manager Ed Pearson met with his marketing team on Sept. 11, knowing he had to kill plans for a House of Fire attraction. In it, people were to be led from a burning crematorium by two firefighters who transformed into demons who took them into hell.
We could not continue with what had happened, just out of respect for the people who lost their lives, particularly the firemen and policemen of New York City, Pearson said.
Skull Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., did away with a maniacal Green Beret character who totes an AK-47 and is covered in blood, said general manager Doug Wolfe. It also eliminated zombies in bloody business suits.
But Wolfe said he cannot sanitize all the terror at Skull Kingdom.
It is a fine line, but the way we do our job is to scare people, he said. If someone's really paranoid about what's going on, I would hope they would censor themselves and not come to a haunted house.
Larry Kirchner of Halloween Productions in St. Louis, who designs haunted houses, said many of his customers are looking for an escape and do not want to soften the scares. He said he toned down the Camp Hack-N-Slash scene at his Screamworld attraction in Fenton, Mo., in which campers get killed, but customers complained it wasn't frightening enough.
Ellen Tobiasz, who for six years has been leading visitors into the Terror on the Wharf haunted house in Salem, the city where 19 people were executed during a witch hysteria in 1692, changed her act after Sept. 11.
She used to say, My victims are ready, before sending customers to face snarling demons. Now she speaks of fearless souls instead of victims.
Every time you turned on the TV, you were hearing more and more about terrorist victims in New York, victims in Washington, Tobiasz said. I made the correlation and made the decision not to say it.
At a haunted house in Naples, Fla., though, the star attraction is a mock electric-chair execution of Osama bin Laden. Every year we have an execution, said Lisa Douglass of the Naples Jaycees, which sponsors the haunted house. This year, we wanted to execute someone everyone hates.
The house features a young FBI agent pummeling bin Laden in his death row cell, then dragging him, kicking and scraming, to the execution chamber. Sparks fly and the floor shakes when the agent pulls the switch.
Around the country, attendance at the haunted-house attractions has varied, with many reporting slow starts but improving numbers.
David Bertolino, owner of the Spooky World Halloween theme park in Foxboro, outside Boston, said he has been hurt by a lack of publicity in the media, which are focusing on the tragedies. Corporate clients also canceled because they were not in a party mood, he said.
Michael Angus, 20, and Michelle Peltier, 18, of Coventry, R.I., said they needed the relief offered at Salem's Terror on the Wharf. Peltier said she is in the National Guard and her brother is in the Navy.
Here, you know the threat, Angus said. You know it can't hurt you.
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