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Halloween

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Why do we like haunted houses? Wars, terror, drones, pandemics, rising sea levels, killer bees, fungi in pain meds—isn’t the world scary enough? Yet we line up for what the industry calls HHA’s—haunted house attractions (as opposed, presumably, to actual haunted houses)—hoping to be freaked out. And if we believe the current web meme Scared Bros in a Haunted House, it works. Totally freaky, dude.

In fact, scaring people is a growing industry, rapidly gaining on Hollywood in revenues. Forty years ago, haunted houses were limited to scary carnival sideshows. Now there are magazines, websites, and trade shows for operators of haunted attractions, providing info on the latest trends: zombie runs, animatronics, 3-D, screamparks. In fact, Haunted House magazine boasts: “The haunted house industry is an American export.” We have no trade deficit in fear.

On one level, this is easy to understand. It’s all about death—that undiscovered country our culture keeps off the thought-map. Death, death, death, coming at us in the form of ghosts, monsters, maggots, snakes, killer clowns, necromancers, headless horsemen, slime crawlers, banshees, and all manner of rotting flesh and decay, aiming to infect us with its fate. The haunted house takes us to death’s door: sewers, graveyards, mortuaries, abattoirs, bottomless pits and of course, hell itself, yawning wide to receive us. Abandon all hope and enter at your own risk!

But of course, there is no risk: the journey allows us to brave death and make it out alive, the very thing we wish—oh man, do we wish—we could do for real. Every scream, every start, every time we nearly pee our pants is a shot of Red Bull to our love of life, a reminder that we hate to leave it.

Once, while on assignment together at Niagara Falls, Lisa Kereszi and I went to Ghostblasters, a haunted house crossed with a laser tag game. It was around the time that Lisa started shooting haunted houses, and secretly she was afraid every time she went to one. She thought she might get killed and end up as a haunted house display, but she didn’t tell me this. We climbed into a jerky little cart and got yanked through a maze of semi-scary dioramas. When the ghosts popped up, I shot them with a pistol and Lisa shot them with a Mamiya.

You don’t need to be Susan Sontag to understand that photographing something reduces its fear factor. Lisa’s pictures show us the haunted house as a fail: the paint peeling off plywood, the boom box strapped to the wall, the dust in the corners of the makeshift Bates Motel. “I challenged my fears,” she told me, “but it didn’t totally work.”

That’s because the pictures are somehow scary all over again—and sadder than the haunted house itself. Reality is seeping into these pictures like maggots squirming into a leaky coffin. Walls are cracking open, curtains gape onto the next room, all those plugs and wires takes us right into the mortal hands of the folks we’re paying for this illusion of an illusion, this brief moment of terror we can conquer, unlike the real dread lurking behind it. These fearful fragments we have shored against our real ruins. They’re no match for what really frightens us: blood, as the sign in one picture says, guts, gore. Meat sacs, long pigs, wetware, bags of bones, bleeders. Our horrors, ourselves.

Lisa Kereszi is a photographer based in New Haven, Conn.

Ginger Strand is the author of Flight, Inventing Niagara and Killer on the Road, which traces how violence followed construction of the interstate highway system.

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Photographer Bryan Derballa photographed "Blackout Haunted House" for WSJ, one of a new generation of haunted houses that feature psychological torture, intense sensory deprivation and hands-on assaults by people playing mass murderers.

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In her projects, Corinne May Botz reveals a dark obsession with domestic space and what lies behind closed doors. Often times the home is used as a stage to explore mysterious moments about life and fears of death. This is evidenced in her past series which include her book The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (The Monacelli Press, 2004), where she photographed models of crime scenes based on actual homicides, suicides and accidental deaths created to train detectives to assess visual evidence. In the project Murder Objects, she photographed household items that were used as evidence in violent crimes, and in Parameters, she explores the homes where agoraphobics live. What eventually comes together in all of this work is an idea of how we use seeing to come to terms with something invisible like crimes we didn’t witness or fears that are unexplainable.

Her latest book Haunted Houses is no different and uses photography as a way of exploring an invisible history of the spaces we live in. Here, Botz tells TIME what inspired the project:

“The first thing that inspired the project were writers like Edith Wharton, Charlotte Bronte and even Toni Morrison. Often these ghost stories were written by women as a means of articulating domestic discontents. I was interested in the idea of a woman being trapped in the home or by domestic space and how this was expressed in history. That combined with the desire to travel led me to photographing the houses.

It has almost become a right of passage for photographer to go on a road trip like Robert Frank or Stephen Shore and traditionally it’s work about public spaces but this project is about private spaces. It’s amazing how many people let me into their homes.

A lot of time I would just show up and knock on the door. When I photographed in haunted houses, I tried to open myself to the invisible nuances of a space. I photographed using a large format camera, with exposures often ranging from a few seconds to a few hours. Though the medium of the visible, photography makes the invisible apparent. By collecting extensive evidence of the surface, one becomes aware of what is missing, and a space is provided for the viewer to imagine the invisible.

I worked on the project, on and off, for 10 years photographing over 100 houses and recording over 50 oral ghost histories. (You can listen to them here)

Unlike the majority of horror films where the ghosts arrive as a result of an inopportune death, or to right a wrong, the inhabitants of these houses are often at a loss for why the ghosts are there, and in some cases the ghost is considered a source of comfort.”

In terms of people…many of them like their ghosts and and the comfort of not being alone, they like these caretakers protecting the house and having these histories attached to their house. They like having their everyday life have some kind of surprise or mystery to it.”

Haunted Houses (The Monacelli Press) is available here. Corinne May Botz’s work is currently part of Crime Unseen at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, which is on display through Jan. 15.

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In the late 1970s and early 1980s New York as a whole resembled a haunted house. The photographer John Conn spent those years documenting the subway system - which is to say, the dungeon in the haunted house's basement.

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