I’m a Little Haunted by the Haunted House of Addictions
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I’m a Little Haunted by the Haunted House of Addictions


In today’s edition of misguided ideas, the Athens Banner Herald is reporting that a group of high school students who probably don’t have any friends have designed an addiction-themed haunted house to “teach the dangers of drugs and alcohol to people of all ages, but in a way that’s also fun.”

According to co-organizer Tessa Barnes, a sophomore at Monroe Area High School, the idea is to show teens who come to the haunted house “how bad drugs are” and that she hopes that “teens caught up in trying to fit in will realize drugs aren’t fun but are scary and dangerous and can ruin your life in a second.”

So wait, is The Haunted House of Addictions supposed to be fun, or not? I’m confused. So are these well meaning kids, I’m afraid.

Let me start by pointing out the obvious: addiction doesn’t look any certain way. Sure, using drugs can be scary and dangerous and ruin your life in a second. It can also look pretty normal and feel little more than boring and ruin your life so slowly you might not even know what’s wrong.

The creators behind The Haunted House of Addictions say they hope that the attraction will help those struggling with drugs or alcohol to seek help. But addicts are great at thinking of themselves as exceptional, and my concern is that showing them a series of “worst case scenarios” will only give fuel to this kind of denial. From the vignettes featured in this haunted house, I certainly wouldn’t have recognized myself as suffering from addiction. I didn’t wreck a car, or work in a meth lab. I never committed a crime as a result of being an alcoholic! I never went to prison! I didn’t die!

These scenes may be scary, and yet research indicates pretty definitively that “scared straight” programs do not work. It’s probably no surprise to any readers of my generation that the ‘Just Say No’ campaigns of the 80’s were a complete failure. In an article for The Baltimore Sun, two Justice Department officials argue persuasively that scared straight programs are not only ineffective but potentially harmful, and remark that traumatizing at-risk kids is not the way to lead them away from crime and drugs.

When it comes to keeping kids from experimenting with alcohol and drugs, hysterical messages can have the opposite of their intended effect. Addiction is a disease, not a matter of not knowing better—and not something one can simply scare away, certainly not with a haunted house. Why not? Because haunted houses—by design—are not meant to be real.

According to Dr. Margee Kerr, the staff sociologist at ScareHouse, a haunted house in Pittsburgh, fear is fun, so long as it’s not real. Haunted houses, Dr. Kerr says, trigger our fight-or-flight responses, flooding us with adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine—sort of like a drug, more than a little ironically—“but in a completely safe space.”

The Haunted House of Addiction is a case of teenagers with no experience whatsoever with the struggle of addiction having fun at addicts’ expense. I don’t blame these kids for not knowing better, but the fact that adults got behind this project and made it happen? Now that’s scary.

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About Author

Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.