From Caller I.D. to radon kits, fear is big business


The play is Howard Korder's '90s satire "Search and Destroy," which was recently on Broadway. Two anxious yuppies trade intelligence.

Robert: Tell you what my broker says.

Martin: What?

Robert: Fear.

Martin: What about it?

Robert: He thinks it's going to be very big. He thinks we're going to be hearing a lot from fear in the '90s. It's going to be the Fear Decade. And he says now's the time to ground floor it.

Martin: Fear?

Robert: Fear-related industries. Blood analyzers. Viral filters. UV screens. Totable security systems. Impact-proof leisure wear. Very cutting edge. Very hot.

Mr. Korder's joke is no joke. The Safety Zone, a mail-order house with retail outlets in McLean, Va., and Boca Raton, Fla., caters to one basic human emotion: fear.

There's the microwave-leak detector, barking-dog alarm, personal emergency alarm, personal alcohol tester, fire blanket, mosquito head-net, radon kit, tick-removal kit -- each phobia codified under scary hexagonal stop signs bearing symbols for baby safety, car safety, home safety, person safety.

"I don't want to make people paranoid," said Melanie Lee, who founded the company with her husband, Antony, in 1988, and whose catalog orders have swelled from half a million units to 5 million in the last year.

"Watch the 11 o'clock news and you wonder why anyone goes out their front door."

At stores in Los Angeles, earthquake safety kits fly off trembling shelves and geologists call news conferences to quell panic about the Big One. Sen. Al Gore, the vice presidential aspirant, has said that children "must begin to think of the sky as a threatening part of their environment."

On its new album, the band Deee-lite has a song titled "I Had a Dream I Was Falling Through a Hole in the Ozone Layer." Some scientists say an asteroid might crash to Earth and end life as we know it.

These are doomy times, and the New Paranoia, indulged by the more than $50 billion a year spent in America on personal and property protection, takes many forms.

Television producer Aaron Spelling built a bombproof anti-terrorist room in his new $100 million home in Los Angeles. Point Blank Body Armor of Amityville, N.Y., recently custom-bulletproofed a customer's denim jacket from the Gap. The new Sun Alert tanning patch measures exposure to the sun's evil ultraviolet rays.

It's "rational fear," not paranoia, said Mary Ann Simnowski, who started a company called New York Baby Proofing with her husband, Anthony, two years ago, and in May opened a "safety store," an anxiety boutique on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A take-home card at the store warns that "2,204,000 children under the age of 5 are injured in their home every year," and parents are investing in stove-knob covers, anti-scald valves, cord shorteners, window guards and lead-testing kits.

New Jersey Bell's Caller I.D. service has signed 186,000 subscribers since it began in 1988, a third of those in the last year. And Robert D. McCrie, who teaches security management at John Jay College in Manhattan, said he regularly receives calls from a "nationally known celebrity," whose latest query was, "Bob, do you think we should put bulletproof glazing in the kids' playhouse?"

Brian Griffiths, the "counter-surveillance coordinator" at Quark Spymasters, a Manhattan dealer in cloak-and-dagger hardware, demonstrated the Video Probe, a small black box that sniffs out hidden cameras in hotel rooms. "This little item was very popular during the Democratic National Convention," he said. "We sold dozens of them." He added that many conventioneers were "concerned about being taped doing things they shouldn't be doing." Another popular item is the Shocking Briefcase, which, if stolen, emits an alarm and 50,000 volts at the perpetrator, both by remote control. "It won't fry him," Mr. Griffiths said. "But he'll do a little dance."

Since the kidnapping death of Exxon executive Stanley J. Reso, the executive safety market has boomed. Anthony Scotti, who teaches "defensive driving" in Medford, Mass., had only five people sign up for his (tax deductible) anti-kidnapping and anti-terrorist program during all of last year. But he's had nine this month alone. Precautions sometimes backfire. On Friday, a company's tear gas-equipped Mercedes detonated at a dealership in Morristown, N.J., slightly injuring 13 people.

In his new book, "American Mythologies," Marshall Blonsky theorizes that "the horror in films and fiction is no longer the romantic id of Shelley's Frankenstein, but the manifestation of mass anxieties over disease, ecological catastrophe, wars (planetary and spatial) and quotidian lurking dangers."

And in the film "Prelude to a Kiss," Meg Ryan tells Alec Baldwin simply, "The world is a terrible place." She is worried that he might burst into flames at any moment. His attitude is more cavalier: "I love the little sign when you buy your ticket to the roller coaster: 'Ride at your own risk.'"

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