By Karen Brooks
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Once you get past the bombed-out subway station full of zombies, it is the loud blast of air hammering your leg in the apocalyptic cityscape that really makes you jump.
The invisible whoosh-bang effect in Austin's House of Torment haunted house, recently named one of the most innovative in the country, is one example of the rekindled love affair between modern audiences and psychological horror.
It is a simple puff of air, but the mind imagines all kinds of creeps.
"The less bells and whistles you have around your scare, oftentimes the more effective it is," said Jason Blum, one of the producers of the "Paranormal Activity" movies, the most recent of which, "Paranormal Activity 3" led the box offices when it opened last weekend.
As gluttons for terror flock to theaters and spooky attractions throughout the Halloween season, industry experts said that these days less gore is more.
Psychological torment is "really starting to come back," said New Hampshire-based horror fiction writer Kristi Peterson Schoonover, citing one of the fathers of science fiction, Edgar Allan Poe, whose writings included "The Raven" and "The Black Cat."
"It's the fear of the unknown, what's around the corner, what's waiting in the dark," she said.
Audiences and the industry that targets them said movies and haunted houses are trending toward mental thrills, realism and suspense to scare the bejeezus out of a society not necessarily frightened anymore by Frankenstein or a bowl of peeled grapes.
"Over the last decade, people went for the 'gore-is-more' approach," said Peter Block, president and general manager of the FEARnet horror network and producer of the "Saw" movies, in an interview with Reuters.
"What you saw this weekend with Paranormal Activity is that what people really, truly want is not how far you can push the envelope, but really can you just get back to the really good scares -- a roller coaster ride drop, a shadow in a room, a cat out of the cabinet."
The "torture porn" evident in movies like the uber-trendy and disturbing "Human Centipede" or the "Saw" series, one of the highest grossing horror-movie franchises of all time, is still a huge attraction, said Gary Handman, director of the University of California-Berkeley's Media Resources Center. But there's nothing quite like the scares generated by one's own mind, he said.
"Shadows and insinuation and what you can imagine in the corners of your mind," Handman said.
The master of the genre was Alfred Hitchcock, whose films in the 1950s and 1960s such as "Psycho," and "The Birds," could torture by revealing to the viewer, before the victim, the horror around the corner.
In its annual 13 Top Haunted Houses in the country list, Hauntworld.com, an online clearinghouse for the haunted house industry, scores points for special effects, and appreciates monsters and rotting corpses.
But the attractions on its list also largely feature frights left to the imagination.
At the top of the list, the Pennhurst Asylum in Philadelphia is a 100-year-old abandoned mental institute, and it makes the list "mostly due to the setting," the magazine writes. "The building itself will instill real fear and true horror in anyone."
At the three-part House of Torment in Austin, which made No. 8, the modern-day requisites of narrative, realism, and psychological thrills are all there.
The story is set in a realistic-looking, post-apocalyptic city, with towering skyscrapers, a dusky sky, giant chunks of rubble nearly obscuring overturned cars, roaring, 12-foot animatronic monsters, zip-lining zombies, and signs warning of dangerous infections, among other award-winning special effects.
The house tickles the claustrophobia nerve by forcing visitors down a hallway with air bladders on each wall -- a trip not unlike squeezing between two giant black balloons for 30 seconds.
Another crowd pleaser: The "Tilted Room," in which visitors creep around an off-kilter room trying not to get pitched forward onto the creepy guy on the counter in front of them. The House, which has been at its current location for seven years, also features a zombie shooting gallery and a cursed jungle with a massive shipwreck.
"I think really the essence of fear is based in the unknown. When we don't know about things, they freak us out. I think that the tilted room and the idea behind it is an extrapolation of that," said Jon Love, vice president of Harbinger Productions, which runs the attraction that brought in 50,000 visitors last year.
Not that the truly disgusting doesn't still capture the imaginations of the more steel-bellied among horror fans, evidenced by the severed heads and rotting corpses still found in even the most hipster of haunted attractions.
Fear, many are quick to point out, is an individual experience. For Sean "Sheetrock" Craig, scary is "when people are stuck in a really bad situation and something is chasing them."
His job as a ghoul at the House of Torment, by the way, involves chasing people who are stuck in an apocalyptic nightmare, otherwise known as "a really bad situation."
By contrast, fellow actor James Balandran is afraid of "demonic children." Kyle Burns, who dodges paintballs in the zombie shooting gallery, fears being restrained while his loved ones are tortured.
Zach Laliberty, 16, swore nothing inside the House of Torment would scare him. Wrong.
"The giant spiders scared the crap out of me," a laughing Laliberty said later.
The Austin teen fell for a classic trap of haunted houses, Block said.
"It's steeling yourself against being scared that actually makes you more susceptible to being scared," he said.
At the New Hampshire-based Shroud Publishing, which publishes dark fiction, the trend of psychological thrills shows in the work they choose to publish, said managing editor and publisher Tim Deal.
"A good scary story leaves you thinking when you disconnect from it," he said. "Those movies that you turn off and suddenly you realize the house is way too quiet, or you put down that book and you realize that there's still a world of the unexplained out there."
(Editing by Greg McCune)