A Spooky Time

Watch out for Kristine Melvanson. She's out to scare the pants off you and your kids. Her job performance rating depends on it.

``Teen-aged girls are the best,'' says Melvanson gleefully. ``ey get petrified!''

A mild-mannered Florida marketing coordinator by day, Melvanson becomes an evil gold-obsessed ghost aboard the sunken S.S. Frightanic at night all this month, one of the 500-plus ``Scare Actors'' hired by Universal Studios Florida for its 19-night Halloween Horror spectacular. She got lessons from Universal officials to perfect her scariness.

``Of course, if people get too scared, I stop,'' she said. `This is such an escape from reality,'' Melvanson continued. ``That's why it's so much fun.''

My 12-year-old daughter Reggie certainly thought so when we joined the out-to-be-terrified crowds at Universal last year.

Imagine that you've walked into a horror movie -- or your worst nightmare. Bizarre creatures -- one scarier than the next -- jump out at you as unpleasant smells (rotten food? the dentist's office?) and strange sounds (screams, thuds) assail you. The wall feels slimy; the floor suddenly drops. Stay home if you hate things that go bump in the night. Don't bring the kindergartners either.

Twenty-five awful creatures will jump out at you as you make your way through each of five haunted houses or ships or even high schools -- wait until you see the crazy cafeteria lady. It's no better when you get outside and onto the streets. Macabre ghosts are everywhere! There's a Festival of the Dead Parade and equally scary stage shows. You know it's fake -- but is it?

That's the idea, of course. ``You never know what's real and what's not,'' said Esther Alejo, laughing, as she exited one of the attractions. ``I love it -- the thrill of being scared,'' said an exuberant Becky Gilliard.

These days, we all seem to crave those thrills more than ever. ``Kids brag about how many horror movies they've seen. It's a badge of honor,'' says DePaul University psychologist Sheila Ribordy, who studies children's fears. Parents, just like kids, get a rush from mastering a frightening environment. All the better if we know the scare is manufactured -- read that safe -- rather than real.

``It's like being a little kid again and going boo to your mother and having her jump,'' explains Universal's Paul Pavis, who spends months directing the team that creates the perfect ``boos.'' (Call 407-22-HORROR or www.usf.com)

Around the country, other boo-meisters have been just as hard at work as Halloween has proved a successful marketing tool for theme parks, museums and even zoos. ``Halloween is the next-biggest holiday to Christmas,'' says Ed Gannon, who works for suburban Boston's Spooky World, that's open only for scary season. (Dial 978-838-0200 or www.spookyworld.com)

Some families see these attractions as an excuse for a quick fall getaway. Universal Studios officials say some tourists plan their trip around Horror Nights: In California, Knott's Scary Farm, a 26-year tradition, now draws more than 300,000 scare seekers in October from all over the West.

Take your pick at Scary Farm: Would you prefer to be attacked by aliens, reeks or ghosts? More than 1,200 monsters are lurking in the fog waiting for you. (Call 714-220-5200 or www.knotts.com)

Eight Six Flags Parks from California's Magic Mountain to Six Flags St. Louis to Fiesta Texas in San Antonio, meanwhile, all have annual Fright Fests complete with enough haunted trains, shrunken heads and snakes and bats to keep you screaming. (To find one near where you'll be, visit the Six Flags Web site at www.sixflags.com)

Mix a little history with your frightful adventure at Salem, Mass., where 20 women were killed for being witches more than 300 years ago. The town hosts a month-long Haunted Happenings festival complete with a costumed dog show, cat contest and culminating in a Halloween bash. (Call 978-744-0013 or www.haunted-happenings.com)

There's no need to disappoint the littlest ghosts and goblins in the family, either, wherever you happen to find yourself this month. Denver's Elitch Gardens theme park has a trick-or-treat trail for those not ready for Denver's scariest haunted house. Demand was so high that Knott's Berry Farm expanded its non-scary daytime Camp Spooky, complete with costume contest, pumpkin carving and the chance to trick-or-treat with Snoopy and the Peanuts gang.

Check to see what the local science museum or zoo has going, too. The Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, for example, held Saturday workshops to show kids how to make their own monster make-up, complete with fake blood. The Bronx Zoo is featuring ``Boo at the Zoo,'' with stories and songs. At the Louisville Zoo, your kids can peer under a giant bed to see what really lives there.

Call the museum or zoo in the city you plan to visit or start at the Web sites for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association at www.aza.org or the Association of Science-Technology Centers at www.astc.org.

``It's pretty cool to trick-or-treat while you hear the lions roar,'' offered the Louisville Zoo's Diana DeVaugn, where the three-week-long Halloween party gets bigger every year.

Just don't push the kids into too-scary territory before they're ready, urges DePaul University's Sheila Ribordy. Remember, those under age 6 might have trouble distinguishing between what's real and what's not. You don't want to risk any child feeling like a failure because he or she couldn't handle a haunted house.

If you're unsure of your child's fright tolerance, ask kids exiting the ``fright-attraction'' to rate its scariness. If you sense that your child wants to opt out, make it easier. ``Tell them the place is too scary for you,'' suggests Ribordy.

It usually is for me. I'm always the first one in my family out.

Happy Halloween!

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times

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