Have you noticed the hoopla surrounding Halloween is muted this year?

Have you noticed the hoopla surrounding Halloween is muted this year?

Strange, considering the terrifying days in which we are living. I blame the stiff competition Halloween faces in 2008.

Zombies and possessed teenagers spewing green bile are laughable compared to the fearful image of the Dow Jones dropping 1,000 points in a single morning and the gaggle of politicians who seem clueless as to what to do about it.

Scary days. Too scary for Halloween marketing, it seems.

However, I believe there is a bounty of Halloween riches to exploit at the expense of our crumbling empire.

True horror always is rooted in the time and place in which it was created. Bram Stoker's "Dracula" was an answer to Victorian England's growing fear of the Eastern European outsider converging on the tiny island.

The existential dread sparked by turn-of-the-century leaps in science informed Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," which took mankind's harvesting of god-like power to its (il)logical end.

"The Exorcist"? Just a little parable about the death of the traditional American family in the wake of the tumultuous '60s. "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" explored the fallout of the Vietnam War. "Nightmare on Elm Street"? A fable on '80s materialism. "The Shining"? A treatise on malaise and the male baby boomer.

It hit me while recently brainstorming haunted house ideas with a friend that opportunity awaits anyone who really wants to send a family home vomiting and in tears after a visit to his house of horrors. The key to creating a quality haunted house is to forgo any attempt at subtlety and go straight for the jugular.

But first, you have to decide what scares a modern American family.

I would set my haunted house in a foreclosed-upon McMansion in some empty cul-de-sac pockmarked with real estate signs. To get there you would have to weave your way through a maze of SUVs with "For Sale" signs taped to the windows and tubes running from the exhaust pipes into the cabs. The empty eyes of families recently evicted from their jobs would follow you from inside these overpriced death boxes.

Inside the haunted McMansion you would be greeted by tour guide, Dr. Bailout, the ghost of a mad scientist who died trying to perform an arcane act of alchemy in which llama crap was turned into gold.

Dr. Bailout would lead you to a room where you'd come face to face with stockbrokers hanging from the ceiling. You and your family would push through their twitching legs as they chanted "Sell! sell! sell!" In the center of the room would be a Jim Cramer look-a-like crucified on an expensive oak desk.

Cramer, a former hedge fund manager and host of MSNBC's "Mad Money," would croak, "Hey, now's a great time to buy" as you ran screaming from the room.

Your family would then pass through to the bathroom where you would be greeted by the corpse of Joe the Plumber, a bloody plunger driven through his head. He would slither across the floor to hand over a bill for $799 for fixing your toilet handle.

Then it's off to another room, where you would be grabbed and strapped to chairs. Your eyes would be forced open "Clockwork Orange"-style as you were subjected to all three of this year's presidential debates. And if any of you managed to cling to sanity after that bombardment, then you would suffer the vice presidential debate interspersed with 10-second snippets of "High School Musical" and tracks off the new Guns N' Roses album.

If, and I mean if, the synapses in your brain continued to function somewhat efficiently, Dr. Bailout would lead you to the kitchen where a look-alike of China's Premier Wen Jiabao wearing a mummy costume would force you to wear a pink apron and scrub the floor on your hands and knees while your children sobbed helplessly in the corner.

"He'll get used to it," Jiabao would say to your young son. "And so will you."

Finally, you would enter the garage and immediately be pushed into an SUV headed for the maze outside. You would spend the rest of the evening locked inside trying to warn coming families to drive away while they still can.

Wadda think? Pretty frightening? It would take quite a budget and pounds of makeup effects, but it could be done. If any readers want to help me out with this thing, I'm willing to work on it. Seriously.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.