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What makes a good haunted house? Haunted house pros weigh in on the fun of fear

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Around Halloween, millions of people across the country pay for the chance to be terrified as they enter all things haunted - from houses to mazes to amusement parks. Katia Riddle went to the ScareGrounds scream park in Portland, Ore., and reports that for people who work in the industry, the trick is to scare people but not too much.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: It's a dark, wet, cold night. That hasn't stopped hundreds from flocking to this amusement park. They're touring three so-called haunts. This one has a twisted medical theme.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Right this way. The doctors are ready for you. Question is, are you ready for them?

(CROSSTALK)

RIDDLE: There's just enough light inside this maze to make out the plastic body parts hanging from the ceiling. A woman in bloody rags jumps out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I see you.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Screaming, inaudible).

RIDDLE: Tucker Morrison and her friend Brianna Hendrickson were some of the screamers in that crowd.

TUCKER MORRISON: I thought it was horrifying.

BRIANNA HENDRICKSON: Yeah. It was so scary.

RIDDLE: In a good way or a bad way?

HENDRICKSON: In a good way.

RIDDLE: Vincent Sherrill brought his date here tonight.

What is it about being scared that's fun?

VINCENT SHERRILL: I think it's mainly the adrenaline that comes with being scared, but also knowing you're safe.

RIDDLE: Adam Rominger manages the cast.

ADAM ROMINGER: We're not trying to traumatize people. That's not our goal.

RIDDLE: Rominger's also an actor. This year, he's playing Dr. Buttonhole - a cross between a clown and a deranged doctor. He describes his interactions with guests as a kind of dance.

ROMINGER: The people make eye contact, and you hold that eye contact, and then they turn their head. They've clearly been scared, and then you start following them.

RIDDLE: If people seem too agitated, he says, he backs off. A good haunt requires more than talented actors, though. There's a whole production company behind this - Vendetta Productions. Staff plan out the sets, characters and narrative. It's a year-round thing.

ROMINGER: Going into December, we'll already be talking about what haunts are we going to do next year.

RIDDLE: In July, they start auditioning actors. Estelle Fulmor is one of the lead producers of the company. She says they rehearse for weeks in advance.

ESTELLE FULMOR: Actors know who the protagonist is. They know if - are they the person who's hunting? Are they the person who's an accomplice? Are they a victim? So it all adds to a storyline.

RIDDLE: That storyline, she says, makes for a more structured and authentic experience. The team also has to understand their audience. They found younger generations especially hard to scare.

FULMOR: You can tell them that like, oh, I'm going to throw you into a woodchipper, and I'm going to kill you. And they're just like, oh, yeah - like, I've watched Chucky kill 50 people.

RIDDLE: They have discovered one useful tool. She says that people get more scared when you tap into something that's familiar from everyday life.

FULMOR: And we understand that millennials really are attached to their pets. Like, we have a generation where their pets are their babies.

RIDDLE: Often, actors will sneak up on visitors and whisper in their ear.

FULMOR: Just telling some people that you being here makes your pet sad, makes them go, oh, my goodness - like, it might.

RIDDLE: Fulmor fell in love with this industry 15 years ago.

FULMOR: You make people scream. You make people laugh. And you make all the friends. And you're just like, I got to keep doing this.

RIDDLE: She even met her husband working on a haunted set. They got married in a haunted house. Adam Rominger, the evil clown doctor, officiated. She loves the community she's made here, and she loves watching other people come here too.

FULMOR: Getting to actually experience a moment in life together with your friends.

RIDDLE: Even if that moment is running away from an evil clown doctor. For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF KATY PERRY SONG, "E.T. (feat. Kanye West)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Katia Riddle