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HUMAN CONDITION / THE FRIGHT FACTOR : What Scares Us?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s not a dark and stormy night and Dean Wright is scanning the display racks at Cinema Secrets, a makeup supply store in Toluca Lake. His eyes light up as he spies a vial of zombie rot, green goo that makes you look dead.

Nearby, his wife, the mysterious Darlene Lamb, is searching for the perfect witch face. She fingers a basic plastic mask. How best to dress this up for the scariest possible look? Hair-sprouting dark moles? Deep-set wrinkles? Bloody scars?

When it comes to Halloween, the Studio City couple is practically fearless. But in real life Darlene gets spooked when strangers knock at the door and Dean shivers when “suspicious” people pass him on the street. “You know, strangers that look like they’re crazed.”

‘Tis the season to scare and be scared. Consider this:

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* Movie fans are lining up to rent scary flicks like “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Psycho.”

“Rentals of scary movies are at least double around Halloween,” says Becka Olson, manager of Blockbuster Video in Burbank.

* Some haunted houses are rated adults-only--not because of nudity but because of the gruesome scenes that unfold inside. In Eagle Rock, for instance, a haunted house in Old City Hall was modified for kiddies because the regular haunt was deemed too gory for the very young and the very old.

Great Caesar’s ghost! What is going on here?

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“We like to be afraid,” says Chaytor Mason, an associate professor of psychology at USC. “Life is threatening,” he says, so encountering and conquering everyday scary things like nail-biting movies proves you can handle fears--at least some of them.

Halloween--first celebrated in ancient times as a festival for the god of the dead--provides a natural milieu for scariness.

Mother Nature even cooperates, notes Ronald Doctor, a professor of psychology at Cal State Northridge. “The world changes. It gets darker faster, and leaves fall off trees,” he says.

“There’s (also) a certain amount of excitement in fear,” says Doctor. Putting on a scary mask is not so different from embarking on a thriller ride at an amusement park, he says. The child--or adult--who insists on riding a death-defying roller coaster repeatedly might get his or her kicks by trick-or-treating at the house with the coffin-creaking sound effects.

Exactly how and when fears are developed has garnered much attention from therapists, although fears--considered to be a common, normal part of life--take a back seat, in research, to their rarer and more serious cousins, the phobias.

“Fear is considered a realistic reaction to a real threat; a phobia is an irrational reaction or a reaction to a supposed threat,” says Doctor, noting that there is no well-defined line between the two. Phobias often involve avoidance of the thing feared.

Doctor believes that everyone comes into the world with “prepared fears.” These fears, he says, “have been ‘hard-wired’ into you.”

“Falling is one,” notes Doctor. “Another is loud noises. Eyes--people staring at you--is another. Edges is yet another--like looking over the edge of a building. A lot of people are not afraid of heights but are very afraid of edges.”

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USC’s Mason says that many other fears are passed on from generation to generation. For instance, a baby might giggle when a spider scampers across its leg. Then a parent rushes over, shrieks and squashes the critter. Thus, says Mason, a fear is born.

Doctor agrees that some fears are learned. “I’ve known people who watched ‘Jaws’ who were afraid to swim in the ocean.”

But there is no evidence that a pregnant woman scared by, say, needles, will pass that fear on to her baby, as folklore has it.

Experts also say there is a waxing and waning of fears over a typical person’s lifetime.

Up to age 2, children generally are fearful, Mason says.

“The peak ‘fear years’ are ages 5 or 6,” says Doctor. Then fears decline as kids enter that nearly fearless stage of about 9 to 11. Doctor attributes the peaks and valleys to hormonal changes.

Adolescence is another scary time marked by new fears--everything from social graces to global warfare.

“And there is some research that suggests the mid-20s are a very vulnerable time for fears,” Doctor says, possibly because the decade is often marked by life changes such as starting a career and personal decisions about lifestyle.

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Fears generally decline with age and experience, but don’t count on them to make sense in every case. For instance, Doctor says patients often confess to him that they are scared of snakes.

“But about 95% of people who say they’re scared of snakes have never had an encounter with a snake,” Doctor says.

Doctor is dumbfounded that people never mention many things that ought to scare them. For instance? “In 25 years of counseling,” he says, never once has a patient said, “What I’m really scared of is broken glass.”

Yet, Doctor is certain that most scaredy-cats are more likely to encounter shattered glass than a slithering snake.

Culture and upbringing play a part, too, in fears. Skeletons, considered scary by some, are not at all scary to Mark Quon of Valencia, who grew up in a household that celebrated “Day of the Dead,” a Hispanic holiday on which small folk art skeletons are displayed. Now, he collects the tiny objects as art.

There is one thing, though, that seems to spook even the most fearless: The unexpected.

Suzanne Cooper helped organize this year’s annual Halloween tour of the Hollywood Cemetery, which was attended by more than 300 people last Saturday.

“What really seems to bother people is when they see that lipstick on Rudolph Valentino’s crypt,” she says.

How does it get there?

“Fans of his.”

At least that’s what she thinks.


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