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David Skal doesn't look like a guy who experiments in terror. Bearded and bespectacled, and drowsy from an overnight escape from New York, Skal looked like he wouldn't harm a fly _ just like Norman Bates. Heck, Skal even had a reflection in a mirror behind him as he sipped coffee in Monday's daylight at Harbour Island.

But make no mistake: David Skal knows what it takes to scare us. More to the point, he knows why we love to have it happen.

Skal visited Tampa in the midst of a press tour that would send shivers up any celebrity's spine. This stop was especially important. Not only was Skal publicizing his new book, an exhaustive research of fright flicks titled The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, but he's also a consultant for Universal Studios Florida's Halloween Horror Nights. Universal is sponsoring Skal's book tour, in return for terror tips and future collaborations.

The fact that a family theme park would be so interested in his scary services proves Skal's theory that horror is a healthy diversion in a continually uptight world.

"Isn't it interesting that the prototype American vacation now consists of going somewhere, say, to a theme park, to confront issues of death and rebirth, catastrophes and explosions?" Skal noted. "Seeing the modern world torn down and you live through it. It's remarkable that this is our entertainment, these close encounters with mortality."

Call it terror therapy.

"We use horror imagery and characters and stories to process fears that we can't deal with in our minds," Skal explained. "Major social traumas and cataclysms seem uncontrollable and overwhelming. We can't control a war or an economic collapse or an epidemic. We make sense of ther chaos of our waking days through our dreams _ these paradoxical, nutty images _ and, we stay sane as a result.

"On a collective level, we do the same thing with monster images, which are all paradoxes; something is living and dead at the same time, something is put together from different organisms, something is human and animal or man and machine. Things that can't happen, but we want to believe in them. They're manageable, very real conflicts."

The traditional movie monsters _ Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and the like _ seem quaint by today's splatter standards, but Skal is amazed by the resurgence in the old reliables in movies, and attendance at Universal's Halloween Horror Nights spook house.

"People go on the Back to the Future ride and everything, but it's these mazelike, dark, twisty, something's-going-to-jump-out-at-you things that were the real fun," said Skal. "And people were lined up by the thousands to be forced through these horrors and being delighted by it.

"What I immediately related to was a child playing peek-a-boo. It's that startled response and the delight and panic that's happening at the same time. There's a sense of "how much can you take?' All wrapped up in this marvelous dance of death."