NORCROSS GA. (AP) — As a smoke machine billows out sweet-smelling mist and the overhead speakers cackle and moan, four preteen boys try to maintain a brave facade.
But as costumed actors pop out from behind corners at the ''Netherworld'' haunted house, the boys grab at each other's shirts so hard they almost rip the seams. Even adults in the group shriek.
''I was plenty scared, but it was fun,'' said 11-year-old Drew Stipe, who made it through the 40-minute attraction with two friends, his older brother and his parents. ''But I wouldn't send the younger kids into there.''
Therein lies the dilemma faced by operators of increasingly popular haunted houses how scary should they get?
Most operators have responded by meeting the demand for increased realism, and that means most haunted houses are now for teens and adults only.
''It's actually harder to not scare little kids too much than it is to really scare the adults,'' said Joe Jensen, creative director for Chicago-based Haunted America Inc., an Internet site.
''There are still the family farms that have the spooky pumpkin patches or scary hay rides, but they are disappearing.''
What's left are professionally done houses such as Netherworld, which is tame compared to some presentations.
The theme of the Atlanta-area ''Chambers of Terror'' is what would happen if all the Y2K alarmists are right. It presents car wrecks, diseases escaping from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other calamities that might result if the world's computers melt down as the clocks turn to the year 2000.
Six Flags theme parks around the country offer ''Alice Cooper's Brutal Planet,'' where no one under the age of 10 is allowed in. But the chain also offers the family-oriented ''Looney Toons Spooky Town'' for youngsters.
Not so at ''Statesville,'' outside Chicago. The haunted house features a body writhing in a crackling electric chair and prison inmates hissing threats while pleading desperately for freedom as they grope through cell bars.
It's based on the nearby Stateville Correctional Center a prison that has housed the likes of serial killer John Wayne Gacy and mass murderer Richard Speck.
''Oh my God, I was so scared,'' said 18-year-old Nanci Bowne, laughing and shaking after bursting out a side exit halfway through the labyrinth. ''I lost my friends in there.''
Joliet-area farmer Paul Siegel terrifies his guests with the psychological horror of villains based at least in part on real life.
''I wanted it to be different than the typical haunted house with Dracula or Freddy Krueger,'' Siegel said. ''I thought, I'm next to Stateville, and what's more scary than the feeling of being locked inside a prison?''
Churches also have embraced the Halloween season by offering scary venues with a message.
However, some churches that employ the concept scaring people into accepting religion have drawn criticism for depicting violent acts, rape, abortion and, most recently, the Columbine High School shootings.
Metro Heights Church in Stockbridge, Ga., is running its ''Tribulation Trial'' for the seventh year, recreating scenes from the Apocalypse based on the Bible.
''We really try to scare people,'' said Dave Roberts, an education pastor with the church. ''We really want people to see what it would be like if they were left behind after the Second Coming.''
He said the attraction is recommended for kids 10 and older because of its realism.
Netherworld co-owner Billy Messina said he doesn't give age guidelines, but a sign at the front says it is not recommended for small children. Everyone is charged a full $12 admission.
''If they want to bring a five-year-old through and then have to leave because they're scared, they're out the money,'' Messina said. ''That's the best deterrent I could think of.''
Claudia Stipe, who accompanied her sons into Netherworld, said this is the first year they've really done something spooky as a family for Halloween.
She lamented the bygone days of spooky pumpkin patches and scary hay rides.
''When I was a kid, the stuff was rated G or PG, and now it's all R-rated,'' Mrs. Stipe said. ''Other than trick or treating, there's just nothing out there to offer kids.''