Published: Oct. 8, 2019

Welcome to Brainwaves, a podcast about big ideas, produced at the University of Colorado Boulder.

I’m Paul Beique.

This week…
(shrieks and spooky sounds)

That was a clip from George A. Romero's cult classic “Night of the Living Dead.” It premiered more than 50 years ago and gave birth to the zombie genre.

Why on earth do we like being scared so much?

Are we disturbed?

Or maybe there’s some deeply buried piece of evolution at play.

Plus, how much will we pay for the privilege of jumping out of our skin?

If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who you gonna’ call?

Stephen Graham Jones.

He’s a horror fiction author and he teaches English at CU Boulder.

Brainwaves’ Sam Linnerooth talked with him about why it might be in our nature to be so obsessed with the supernatural.


(Screams… soundtrack)

The horror flick.

Americans love these movies…

Going back to 1982, half of the top 10 fall box office earners are horror movies.

And it goes back further than that.

Edgar Allen Poe, Agitha Christie and other horror pioneers are some of the best-known authors ever.

The bottom line is that humans will pay to be afraid.

I think why we like being scared is that spike of fear, followed by that sigh of relief that we have survived.  

That’s Stephen Graham Jones, a horror writer and professor who teaches classes on bloodcurdling books and media.

He says there’s something very natural about it, something buried deep within us.

We came up on the Savanna with everything wanting to bite into the back of our skulls, which is to say: there’s always teeth in the darkness waiting for us.

But most of us don’t live that hunter-gatherer life anymore.

As we’ve kind of sanitized and sterilized and made the world safe, I think those teeth have retracted. They’ve retreated a little bit. But horror brings them back for us. Horror is the teeth in the darkness. Horror reminds us that we’re vulnerable, I think. And that makes us feel human. I think that’s a big part of being human, is feeling vulnerable.

And how has that changed? Does the horror genre look different than it has in previous decades or previous years?

I think we’re still dealing with the same issues in horror as Edgar Allen Poe was dealing with, say, which are: What happens when we die? What happens if we come back after we die? And how do we process grief? What are the evils we can do to each other? They’re the same questions. They find different wrappers. 

In other words, we use horror to explore the things that are still looming in the darkness of the modern era—a modern set of teeth waiting to get us.

They might look differently, but as he says—same question, different wrapper.

You know, we dress them up differently. In one decade the zombie might be the dominant metaphor or model or monster. The next decade it might be vampires or the slasher or the haunted house. We don’t really have a strict cycle that we go in, but we do have fads that come and go for sure. 

How do you see the horror genre changing in future decades?

You know, I think it’s just going to continue the fad cycle. Or I hope it does anyways, because I want werewolves to cycle back around to the top, of course. But as for how it will change, I think the audience is getting kind of fatigued with characters who make poor decisions. 

You know the type: Man hears sound in basement…

Knowing full well there’s an axe murder on the loose…

(Door creaks)

Goes to investigate...


What could go wrong?


So, we as writers, or we as creators need to make the characters decisions make more sense to the audience, to the readers. Because you have to have characters going to the haunted house or going to the evil swamp, or whatever it is--they have to go to the bad place--but we need to make stories that make their decision to go to the bad place completely rational, and possibly the only choice.

A more rational and modern way to confront what lurks in the dark.

For Brainwaves, I’m Sam Linnerooth.

With all that in mind, we wanted to know what you most appreciate about October’s haunted holiday-- Halloween.

It’s nice to see different costumes. Probably that’s one major thing.

I like how people get to dress up. It’s spooky season.

It’s fun. It gives you a chance to do something different than your average day.

The dressing up and the parties!

Actually, I don’t like Halloween.

I’m not from America, I’m an international student. So I would say I like all of it. Almost the way—the dressing and the way the pumpkin is prepared. That I love.

I like the way that everyone gets to be someone different for a night.

I like the way everyone gets to dress up!

Thanks to Arakesh, Katie, Erin, Quinn, Addison, Puru and Cody. Brainwaves’ Cole Hemstreet talked with them on the 29th Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado.

Of course, our love of all things ghoulish makes a lot of green for some savvy business-people.

To find out how much, Brainwaves’ Dirk Martin talked to Greg Reinke.

Reinke’s been in the business of banshees, ghosts, zombies, you name it, for more than 50 years now.

Greg Reinke, welcome to Brainwaves.
Hey, thanks for inviting me.
How did you get started in the Halloween business?
Well, actually it started out with the haunted mansion. I was very young. About 6 years old when a neighbor kid scared the tar out of me and I didn't want to be scared anymore but I believe in the boogie man and all those kinds of things. And so at 6 years old I went set the basement at my parents’ house in the dark all day and the boogie man never showed up. And that's when I realize you know, there’s something to this scared-thing. And so at the age of 9 years old we started building haunted houses. We did it in the basement of my parent’s house. And back then I was really big into blood and guts. And, you know, when your little like that and are young you’re in to body fluids and gross stuff. And as we progressed over the years, we no longer do those types of things and there’s a reason for it. Like we don’t do blood and guts anymore. We don’t do knives or chasing you with weapons or chainsaws or anything like that. And what the changes is we found that when we used to do the bloody-gory stuff and chase people with knives and stuff, the fight or flight thing kicks in. And if you're threatening to kill somebody or hurt their girlfriend, or something, they want to fight you and they're going to beat up a monster. (laughing) So that’s how that works. And so by not doing that we have literally no issues with that anymore but people love to be scared. They love the adrenaline - the adrenaline that’s released by that. But you’re in a very safe environment in a haunted house because you know you're going to come out you're not going to get hurt.

The national retail Federation estimates Americans will spend nearly $9 Billion dollars on Halloween this year. Why do you think people get so excited about Halloween?

You know, what’s cool about Halloween, it’s a ‘me’  holiday. Otherwise what I mean by that is you're not going out and buying a birthday gift for Christmas gift or something. You can spend as little or as much as you want on yourself and no one gets angry with you.
If you want to spend $500 on a costume and wear a dress like a woman or dress like a man or dress like anything else, nobody really gets upset. You get to do what you want to do and it's really fun. That's why it's such a great holiday. But you're not buying stuff for everybody else unless, you know, if your mom or dad or something, you’re buying your kids costumes. Something like that but generally it’s for yourself.

You’re somewhat unique in the Halloween market in that you’re open year-round. What’s your strategy?

Well, you know, I get asked that a lot. They go, ‘Do you make money doing this?’ I tell them, ‘Nah. My parents are rich and they bought me a building I just didn’t know what to do with it. Actually, there’s a lot of science to it.  Right now, during this time of year, everybody and their mother carries my stuff. You know, Target. You know, King Soopers, the spirit stores come in. You know, the temporaries and all that. And you can buy it anywhere you want. Well there’s approximately, I believe, four-and-a half-million people that live in Colorado, in the Denver metro area. And so the day after Halloween pretty much everybody gets out of the Halloween industry. They quit selling it. Well if just 1 percent of those people need something during the rest of your you realize that's 40,000 people. That's a pretty good niche.

Yes, it is. It sounds awesome. One last question. Why do you think people like to be scared?
You know, I don't know if they'd like to be scared. I think they learn to like to be scared, if that makes sense. For instance, we’re one of the few haunted houses that can do a children's tour because we don’t do blood and guts. We don't do knives and chains and all that kind of stuff. We don't have bodies hanging all over. So, you can actually walk your children through the haunted house and show him how it's done. You get to get a press the button, touch the monster - see, they’re made out of rubber. Children don't know the difference between fantasy and reality. So, by doing this we teach them a difference. And what's fun if they usually end up becoming a client because we don't scare them so bad when they’re little that they don’t enjoy it. They learn to enjoy being scared.

Ok. Greg Reinke, thank you for talking with me.

You’re welcome. Thanks for calling. 

Thanks for listening. If you haven’t yet, please like and subscribe to Brainwaves wherever you get your podcasts.

Cole Hemstreet, Dirk Martin and I produced today’s episode.

Andrew Sorensen is our executive producer.

Sam Linnerooth is our digital producer.

We’ll see you next time on Brainwaves.