Friday, October 13, 2017

Haunted Houses Are Big Business, Part 1 of 2

This week and next week in my Halloween season series of blogs, I'm doing a two-part blog about haunted houses.

I remember when I was a child in West Los Angeles.  We had a very large garage and one year my mother and father fixed it up like a haunted house for my Halloween party—a winding, twisty route through all kinds of scary things.  It was a lot of fun and totally different from anything anyone else in the neighborhood did for Halloween.  Of course, back in those days, scary things were not at all the same type of bloody gruesome attractions that are the main features of today's professional Halloween attractions.

Halloween attractions have moved far beyond the neighborhood scare as a fun encounter for the trick-or-treaters.  Today they are big business—very big business.  Operators of the large attractions spend most of the year coming up with new and better ideas for frightening attractions and implementing them.  They take pleasure in dreaming up even more diabolical ways of giving us the seasonal nightmares.

This week, let's talk about the history of haunted houses and some Halloween facts.  Just in the United States, there are over 1200 professional haunted houses, 300 theme parks that operate horror-themed annual Halloween events and over 3000 charity-run spooky Halloween attractions.  Haunted attractions have a long history dating back to early civilizations.

Ancient Times:
The Egyptians knew that the best way to keep body snatchers away from a pyramid was to really scare them away.  The commonly used mazes, moving walls, self-opening doors, and traps as well as snakes and insects to protect treasure and the bodies of royalty.  True, they weren't charging admission and the public wasn't lined up waiting to get inside, but it is an early example of creating a setting to produce fear.

The Greeks and Romans have a folklore complete with mazes and labyrinths filled with monsters.  With theater being a vital part of their culture, we can assume they created numerous special effects devices to enhance the scare factor that would evolve into today's haunted house elements.

The Dark Ages:
This period in history saw the Christians continue the evolution toward today's haunted house attraction. During the 1300s through the 1500s, Europe had been converted from Celtic and pagan religions to the practice of Christianity.  Many of today's Halloween activities—carving pumpkins, bobbing for apples, dressing up in costumes and even trick-or-treating—were pagan practices that stayed with us.

The Renaissance:
Theater became increasingly popular and catered to society's love of horror which resulted in the development of more special effects.  Ghosts, demons, the devil, and other monsters appeared regularly in plays including those of William Shakespeare.

The 1800s:
This was a time when the general population became fascinated with ghosts and the possibility of other realms.  Self-proclaimed mediums, fortune tellers, clairvoyants, and spiritualists engaged in conjuring sessions in an attempt to communicate with the dead which became a form of entertainment for the elite.  The theme of hauntings continued in the theater and the century provided the first wax museum, the forerunner of future walk-through attractions that played on people's sense of reality.

The 1900s:
The start of the 20th century saw the increased popularity of the traveling carnival and the rise of the what was referred to as a freak show.  Dark rides also became popular amusements.  The patrons sat in a boat or on a train and were automatically moved through numerous scenes.  Amusement parks came into popularity during this time.  Those that could not afford a big roller coaster offered cheap fun houses and haunted house attractions to pull in customers.

Also during this time, many of the residential houses built during the early 1800s had become dilapidated and worn down.  Adults would tell their children that ghosts filled the neglected homes in an attempt to keep them from exploring those structures.  This further fueled the mystique of haunted houses.

The 1960s:
1969 was the opening of Disneyland's (Anaheim, California) Haunted Mansion attraction.  Rather than putting a genuine decrepit-looking structure in the middle of Disneyland, he created a lavish mansion with a pristine exterior based on the appearance of the San Jose, California, Winchester House.  It was originally a walk-through attraction but was soon changed over to a ride.

The 1970s:
Non-profit organizations began to use abandoned buildings and fields to put up haunted houses to raise money for charity.

The 1980s:
This was the decade when horror movies grew in popularity and so did haunted houses.  Most amusement parks had a scary attraction of some sort.

The 1990s to present:
Haunts are everywhere—haunted hayrides, mazes, and scavenger hunts.  They've become so popular that haunts are here to stay with the industry constantly evolving with new and more terrifying attractions.
Halloween Frightening and Fun Facts:
Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday in the U.S.

Approximately 100 countries celebrate Halloween.

Over 7 billion dollars are spent annually on candy, costumes and activities in just the U.S.

Approximately 90% of all households with children will participate in some sort of Halloween activity.

Over 80% of all haunted attractions in the U.S. are operated by a charity or help to benefit a charity of some sort.

Check back next week for Part 2 of my Haunted Houses blog.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Horror Movies For The Halloween Season

What has happened to the scary horror movies from the past that traded on the atmosphere of fear rather than the visual of spurting blood and flying body parts?  The tingling sensation that made the hair stand on the back of our necks and goose bumps on our arms as our imaginations ran wild.  The spooky ground fog that slithered over and around the tombstones, cloaking the cemetery in an eerie silence and spectral glow.

I'm talking about the traditional horror classics from decades gone by such as Frankenstein from 1931 with Boris Karloff's brilliant performance as the monster.  Also from 1931, Dracula with Bela Lugosi's portrayal of the vampire as both elegant and mesmerizing which left the horror to the imagination of the viewer.  The next year gave us 1932's The Mummy with Boris Karloff once again turning in a stellar performance, this time as the two thousand year old mummy in search of the reincarnation of his mate.  Then came 1941's The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney, Jr., as the stricken and cursed Larry Talbot.

True to Hollywood tradition, these classic horror movies spawned numerous sequels—Bride of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein, Dracula's Daughter.  And as long as Hollywood was on a roll, they added to the profit factor by capitalizing on the popularity of the characters by having them co-star in such movies as Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man.  Then there were the myriad remakes that came over the ensuing years, some serious attempts and others totally ludicrous.  Each one pushed the envelope in its own way in order to hopefully make it better (as in more box office dollars) than its predecessor.

And the award for the most remakes over the years goes to Dracula.  Some were serious films and others were more on the ridiculous side with titles such as Dracula's Dog.

With all four of the above mentioned original movies, the remakes never really captured the essence of the originals…in my humble opinion.

And this month, as with every October, Turner Classic Movies cable channel is bringing out the spooky/scary best for Halloween.  Every Friday evening for the month they are presenting a lineup of seasonal movies with each Friday having a theme (i.e. haunted houses, etc.). And every Tuesday is classic horror movies. They conclude the month with a spooky October 31st marathon.

But these classic horror movies have done more than provide us with entertainment.  They have given us some valuable lessons for handling real life as well as those evil things lurking in the shadows.

Here are 9 important lessons Halloween season horror movies have taught us.

9)  When it appears that you have killed the monster, NEVER check to see if it's really dead.

8)  If your companions suddenly begin to exhibit uncharacteristic behavior such as hissing, fascination with blood, glowing eyes, or increasing hairiness, get away from them as fast as possible.

7)  Do not search the basement when the power has just gone out (especially if it was NOT knocked out as the result of a storm or if yours is the only house on the block without power).

6)  If appliances start operating by themselves, move out.

5)  Stay away from certain geographic locations such as: Amityville, Elm Street, Transylvania, Nilbog, the Bermuda Triangle…or any small town in Maine.

4)  If your children speak to you in any language which they should not know or if they speak to you using a voice which is not their own, be afraid…be very afraid.

3)  When you have the benefit of numbers, NEVER pair off (are you listening to this advice Scooby Doo gang?) or worse yet go it alone when searching the spooky old mansion for the source of the strange noises.

2)  As a general rule, don't solve puzzles that open portals to hell.

And last, but not least…

1)  If you find a town that looks mysteriously deserted, there's probably a good reason for it.  Take the hint and stay away!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival

With Halloween only a month away, I thought I'd start a series of blogs representing the spirit of the holiday.

According to Chinese legend, hungry and restless ghosts roam the world to visit their living descendants.

Traditional Chinese belief has the seventh month of the lunar year reserved for the Hungry Ghost festival (Yu Lan). For 2017, the festival starts on September 5th. This is a boisterous celebration of feasts and music. According to Chinese folklore, the ghosts who wander the physical world are ravenous and envious after dying without descendants or because they are not honored by relatives who are still alive.

Because the hungry spirits need to be appeased, prayers and incense are offered to deceased relatives. Fake currency, known as hell money, along with paper copies of material wealth are burned. The ghosts then use them when they return to the underworld.

Neighborhoods hold nightly shows of Chinese operas and pop concerts. The front row of seats remain empty because they are reserved for the ghosts. These shows are accompanied by extravagant feasts. On the 15th day of the lunar month, families offer cooked food to the ghosts with the hope that the spirits will help them find good jobs, get good grades, or even win the lottery.

Tradition holds that there are 14 things you should not do during the Hungry Ghost Festival month:

1)       Don't stay out late at night, spirits might follow you home
2)       Don't stab your chopsticks on your bowl of rice, it resembles the joss sticks offerings to the dead
3)       Don't take photos at night, they might capture things you don't want to see
4)       Don't celebrate your birthday at night
5)       Don't open an umbrella, especially a red one, in the house
6)       Avoid working late during this month
7)       Don't cover your forehead
8)       Don't play games that can attract spirits such as Ouija Board
9)       Don't wait at a bus stop after midnight
10)     Don't use black or a dark color nail polish, the spirits might think you are one of them
11)     Don't enter a cemetery or abandoned house
12)     Don't spit or blow your nose in public or at a tree/plant
13)     Don't lean against the wall, spirits like to stick on walls because they're cooler
14)     Don't turn your head around if someone pats you on the shoulder

Next week in my spirit of Halloween series, I'll be posting a blog about America's Haunted Hotels.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Are The Holidays Getting Confused?

As we all know, Christmas is December 25th. But it seems to arrive earlier each year. The end of summer/official start of autumn (here in the northern hemisphere) was yesterday—Friday, September 22, 2017. We've barely cleared the summer season. Halloween is still over a month away and Thanksgiving is two months away. But none of that seems to make any difference.

As far as some retailers are concerned, Christmas is already here. In fact, it's been here for a while. Yep…that's right. There are Christmas decorations, Christmas cards, Christmas wrapping paper, and other things Christmas in the stores next to the displays of Halloween candy and masks. I've been receiving Christmas Cards—buy now and get a special discount solicitations since August.

It's a little disconcerting. Winter weather is definitely not here. There's nothing outside that even pretends to resemble the pictures on Christmas cards showing the snow-laden pine and fir trees, pristine snow covering the landscape (before it turns to dirty slush), and a perfect snowman out there in the wilderness complete with top hat rather than the lopsided snowman in someone's front yard. And there's the charming country cottage with the smoke curling from the chimney and an old-fashioned sleigh being pulled by a horse.

How can you even think of chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at your nose when the temperature for the last several days has been in the mid to high 90s? I do realize there are many places where nice warm weather is common at Christmas time. In the U.S., Hawaii and southern Florida come to mind. And, of course, in the southern hemisphere Christmas arrives in the middle of summer. But even with the places in the U.S. that experience warm weather year round, wouldn't it be nice to get Halloween and Thanksgiving out of the way before concentrating on Christmas?

I, personally, would rather finish with one holiday before embarking on the next one. Maybe that has to do with my childhood. My birthday is in mid December and my parents always made sure that it was clearly separated from Christmas. The tree and decorations did not go up until after my birthday.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Say Goodbye To Summer And Hello to Autumn

Friday, September 22, 2017, marks the official end of summer and start of autumn here in the Northern Hemisphere—the Autumnal Equinox.

Earlier this month in my little corner of the world we had a delightful taste of the fall weather to come.  That crisp feel in the air with cooler temperatures replacing the heat and dryer air shoving aside the retched humidity of summer.  That change to cool dry air brought a renewed vigor, a revived energy to replace the lackluster feeling resulting from the summer heat and least for me.  (Do you get the impression that I don't function well in heat and humidity?)

Just as I love the renewal of life in the spring—bright green new leaves on the trees, colorful flowers, the awakening of nature from winter's long hibernation—I also love the change of the leaves to their brilliant array of fall colors in autumn.  This year we've exceeded our average amount of rainfall, so I'm hoping for a more colorful autumn than we've had the last couple of years.

I can say with all sincerity that I'm happy to welcome the end of summer.  Oh, yeah…also happy to welcome the start of fall.  But it's mostly the end of summer's heat and humidity that thrills me. I do have to admit that the summer of 2017 was a strange mixture of several triple digit temperature days and periods of cooler temperatures. However, we did have many super high humidity days.  Ugh!

Welcome autumn...I'm thrilled to see you!  But, on the other hand, I'm hoping for a mild winter.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Total Eclipse Of The Sun

On August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse was visible in the U.S. literally from coast to coast as it moved across the country—from the Pacific Ocean on the west coast to the Atlantic Ocean on the east coast. I traveled to an area where I could see the total solar eclipse. The area we selected was the town of Hiawatha, Kansas, (population of a little over 3000) in the far northeast corner of the state.  In Wichita, where I currently live, the eclipse was going to be 94%. But when a 3.5 hour drive can get the total eclipse, we decided that was the thing to do.

In Hiawatha (central time zone), the eclipse started at 11:39AM and concluded at 2:33PM with totality occurring at 1:06PM and lasting for 2 minutes and 34 seconds.

We bought our eclipse glasses about 2 weeks in advance. I spent lots of time going over all the settings on my DSLR camera that I don't normally use to make sure I could photograph everything with quick efficiency. Traffic-wise, we anticipated crowded roads so we left before daylight. The drive up was surprisingly quick and easy, normal traffic moving along as highway speeds.

Rather than finding a quiet place on a country road somewhere, we headed for Hiawatha's city park which had been set up as the center of eclipse activity. Parking was a reasonable $5. Just 2 blocks away from the city park, a church was charging $20 for use of their parking lot (however, I suspect that it might have been an overnight parking fee for motor homes and recreational vehicles).

At the city park, the main recreation building housed a demonstration and talk by NASA personnel in the auditorium and the gym had been opened for children. Outside in the open grassy areas, a band provided live music, one of the television stations (I'm assuming from Topeka, Ks) set up for a live broadcast, about a dozen food trucks were on site and they offered a wide variety of choices rather than everything being the same. Lots of picnic tables and even a beer garden. There were, of course, the normal mandatory souvenir stands selling T-shirts and other Eclipse-themed items. But the main attraction was the rapidly approaching time for the eclipse.
clouds closing in as eclipse starts
Since viewing the sun at mid day is a matter of looking straight up rather than at a stage, there were no bad seats. Everyone was the same 93 million miles away from the show with an unobstructed view of the event.

But…as the old saying goes, into every life a little rain must fall. And so it was on August 21, 2017, in Hiawatha, Kansas.

That whole portion of the state had been having off and on rain for several days. The forecast for Hiawatha for August 21 said partly cloudy with possibility of showers. The morning looked pretty good, then the clouds rolled in. But we weren't worried. It was not a solid cloud cover, it was your basic intermittent coming and going cloud cover with the sun visible most of the time.
last picture before clouds cut off view 
Until about 12:30, approximately an hour into the eclipse and half an hour prior to totality, when the partially cloudy turned into definite storm clouds and started to rain. And that pretty much describes the weather for the rest of the day.

However, the 2 minutes 34 seconds of totality was not lost on us even though the sun/eclipse was not visible. The cloud cover broke at the horizon. As anticipated, the sky became dark (however not black like midnight on a moonless night) and street lights came on in response. The temperature noticeably dropped, but the rain helped that along. The most intriguing part of the obscured eclipse was the color and feel of the air.

The color was twilight, but not really. A combination of many hues, but no specific one. A soft glow that seemed to surround rather than coming from a single direction.

When I say feel, I'm not referring to the sense of touch. The feel was somehow ethereal—aesthetic rather than tactile. The very air surrounding us oozed an almost surreal awareness, a sensation of awe, a perception that can't be explained using mere words.
after the eclipse 
But reality soon set in. What was a 3.5 hour drive to Hiawatha, Kansas, was an 8 hour drive home. The highway was literally a parking lot.

Even though we could not see the moment of totality, the experience was well worth the trip.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Cats Have Super, Psychedelic Vision

Science has known that birds, insects, reptiles, and fish can detect ultraviolet light. Recent studies show that more animals share this ability than originally believed. A new study shows that cats and dogs may be able to see UV, too.

Cats are nocturnal and have been thought of as being able to "see in the dark." They have long been a symbol of the mysterious. It's now believed they can see things invisible to humans such as psychedelic stripes on flowers and flashy patterned feathers on birds. The secret to this is ultraviolet light detection, an ability shared by many animals but not humans. Snow reflects UV but white fur does not, allowing reindeer to see polar bears at a distance. Humans would just see a blur of all white.

It is assumed that most mammals do not see UV because they have no visual pigment sensitive to UV. They have lenses like those of man that prevent UV from reaching the retina. Certain people, such as those who have had their lenses replaced during cataract surgery, can see some UV, but most humans cannot.

Humans are good at seeing detail. If we didn't have a lens that removed the UV so that we don't see it, the world would appear more blurry.