Haunted House Preys on New Yorkers' Fears

They say nothing can rattle a New Yorker — but one man claims to know the city's deepest fears. In building a haunted house meant to scare the pants off visitors, an off-Broadway producer polled New Yorkers about what they fear the most.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Urban dwellers may be tough, but one man claims to know a city's deepest fears. In New York, an off Broadway producer has done opinion polling in all of the boroughs about what adults are most afraid of and he's built a haunted house for Halloween to scare the pants right off them.

NPR's Robert Smith went through it.

ROBERT SMITH: So far, we've been herded through tight, dark spaces filled with rats and screaming madmen. You know, pretty much a typical day on the Lower East Side. But nothing can prepare us for this. It's a cornfield, I guess catering to those New Yorkers who are afraid of agriculture. No, no, wait. It's a creature lurking in a cornfield.

(Soundbite of cackling)

SMITH: A demented, blood soaked clown.

Unidentified Clown: Want to stay and play with me?

(Soundbite of cackling)

SMITH: It may be a little hokey, but according to the creator of Nightmare: Face Your Fear, as this house is called, the clown is the city's second highest ranked terror.

That really ranked that high?

Mr. TIMOTHY HASKELL (Creator, Nightmare: Face Your Fear): That high, that high.

SMITH: Timothy Haskell is an impresario of horror who says he grew up on haunted houses in the South.

Mr. HASKELL: I was traumatized by them, which is - this is part of my therapy.

SMITH: But when he came to New York City, he says that traditional scares didn't seem to work here.

Mr. HASKELL: So I sort of created a house that encapsulates real fears, real things that could be possible. A lot of people gave us answers that were being in the house alone and musophobia, which is the fear of rats or mice or anything like that, and I think we can all relate to that. I actually got a lot of squirrel answers, which I found funny.

SMITH: Since Haskell decided to build five haunted houses in all five boroughs, he tailored them to the particular nightmares of different parts of New York.

Mr. HASKELL: Manhattan, a lot of people said - we didn't put it in the house -but the fear of the homeless. And in places like Bronx and Queens, people would say things like the fear of becoming homeless.

SMITH: Of course, translating a survey of terror to an actual haunted house is the real challenge.

(Soundbite of screaming)

SMITH: Inside, we're treated to the kind of torture that would make a CIA agent blush.

(Soundbite of saw)

SMITH: Oh, we just got hit by some kind of goo. And then we're chased into a pitch black maze with the walls folding in on themselves.

Oh, this is by far the worst part. Oh man, I just hate, I hate being in enclosed spaces.

(Soundbite of screaming)

SMITH: Yeah, that's really helpful. Thanks.

The number-one ranked fear among New Yorkers is drowning, which makes sense since we live on an island. I won't spoil it for you, but let's just say that the house ends with a little girl having a really bad day.

(Soundbite of screaming)

(Soundbite of crying)

SMITH: Oh, we got sprayed with something. That was awful.

Outside the haunted house, Christopher Rourse(ph) says the place nailed his greatest fear.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER ROURSE: The lack of space, actually, and the darkness.

SMITH: So it's like a bad studio apartment.

Mr. ROURSE: Exactly. Exactly, with no views.

SMITH: But the more jaded New Yorkers like Douglas Pichinini(ph) aren't buying it.

Mr. DOUGLAS PICHININI: It's not very often you encounter clowns.

SMITH: So what are the true existential fears in New York?

Mr. PICHININI: Not having enough money to pay your rent.

Unidentified Woman: Exactly.

Mr. PICHININI: Being stuck on a subway.

Unidentified Man #2: Where you sit down, and all of a sudden something's wet.

Mr. PICHININI: Or sticky.

SMITH: Producer Timothy Haskell says he's heard all these jokes and all the people who wanted even scarier concepts that he just can't pull off.

Mr. HASKELL: Well, we can't touch people. We can't make people get in too compromising of a position. I mean, there is just so much liability.

SMITH: When you're running a haunted house, I guess the number one fear is of lawyers.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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