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I suppose you had to be there. How else can you explain why "A Night in Dracula's Castle: The Transylvania Dare" (9 p.m., Friday, Fox Family Channel) appears to be no more frightening than a summer ride at a local amusement park.

You can't see why the Western New York family entering the castle is frightened. You can't smell it. So you can't fully appreciate this two-hour televised journey into Hunedoara Castle.

The first 30 minutes of the special is a history lesson on why the castle in Romania qualifies as one of the "Scariest Places on Earth."

Linda Blair, the old "Exorcist" star herself, is the host of the special and makes infrequent appearances to highlight the drama. Fast-speed photography also is used to good effect.

Author and historian Alan Robson, who is quite theatrical, is the primary tour guide.

"Real evil exists in this place," says Robson dramatically. "You don't walk out of this place. You turn and run, if you have any sense."

That's good advice for viewers who expect something frightening. The unseen narrator with the child-like voice is Zelda Rubinstein, who you may remember from a couple of "Poltergeist" movies. Her narration pops up frequently to add little details like, "some say, Dracula's ... soul now roams freely in the castle."

There also are a variety of castle experts who explain why the Western New York visitors should be afraid, very afraid.

"This is a dangerous place, no one should enter here," advises a gypsy witch.

After the course on how Vlad the Impaler operated (100,000 people were impaled in six years of his rulership) and the Dracula legend began, the five members of the family happily enter the mammoth castle. Well, four of them are happy. The fifth seems afraid of her shadow.

The family dynamic is a little confusing. John Martin, a social worker who minored in psychology in college, is the father of Connie and stepfather of Cristin Wilde (the really frightened one) and Jennifer Scully. Jason Menegaux is Connie's husband. The mystery of where John Martin's wife is isn't explained.

Robson seems to relish making the family feel a little squeamish and dad feel a little guilty for even attempting to explore this scary place.

"I don't understand why someone who is the elder would want to bring their family here," Robson tells Martin. Later, Robson predicts the family "will change forever."

The five family members are given cameras that are attached to their chests so viewers can get all those "Blair Witch"-like close-ups. You can see them sweat, see them jump, see them react to each other's fears. But you can't see what is making them so jumpy. On a few occasions, they are sent to separate locations to be by themselves and investigate the goings-on in areas where famous crimes were committed.

The family members set an unofficial national television record for use of such words as "huge," "scary" and "creepy."

"Creepy" pretty much describes how I felt when I could see close-ups of their nostrils. After seeing something that freaks her out, Jennifer is asked what it was. "I have no idea," she responds.

Neither will viewers.

Cristin eventually says she is literally scared to death.

"I don't understand why everyone is not as scared as I am," she says.

Of course, they all survive to tell the tale.

According to Jason Menegaux, the family took the trip in July after winning a contest. They always watch "The Scariest Places on Earth." Jason believes in ghosts and the paranormal.

The family sent a videotape to the Family Channel, explaining why they wanted to be on the show. Menegaux mentioned that living in Amherst, which is one of the safest places in the country, made him seek some danger. But he was told his wife's begging at the end of the tape sold the producers on the family.

They were called a week before they left and not told where they were going until they got there.

"It was the best vacation we've ever been on," said Menegaux. "We went to a place we never would have thought of going in a first-class way. We had a driver, an interpreter. Anything we wanted, they took care of. And then we got to go to this truly haunted place and to go on this adventure."

Was Robson right? Did the trip change the family?

Menegaux said he and the skeptics in the family, Cristin and John, changed. "I got to experience some of the stuff first hand," said Menegaux, who was legitimately scared. "When you see me screaming like a woman, that is for real."

His wife, Connie, added that Cristin believed "completely 100 percent that nothing was rigged and all was real."

But Connie wasn't as frightened as her stepsister or her husband.

"I don't feel like I was ever scared," she said. "I was probably the least scared of anybody. I heard a noise and screamed. Then I laughed. I thought it was really fun."

Menegaux believes the fact that viewers won't be able to see what scared everyone adds to the likelihood that it was real.

"I couldn't tell you if something was rigged," said Menegaux, "but if it was, it would make sense that the cameras would be on it and everybody would see it."

Menegaux was amused by Robson's chastising of his father-in-law for bringing the family to a scary place.

"We had to talk him into going," said Menegaux. "No one ever thought we'd get picked. I wanted to tell the guy so badly, "he's (John) being dragged along.' But John is adventurous. He was really into it."

Where was John's wife, Kathy?

"You could only take five people and we didn't think that she was interested in going," explained Menegaux.

Do you believe, as the show suggested, that you connected with the spirit of Dracula?

"I don't know about that," said Menegaux. "But I know I encountered something."

Rating: 2 stars out of 4

Paula Littman, 29, of Lockport is a contestant on tonight's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (9 p.m., Channel 7). According to ABC, Ms. Littman is an award-winning singer-dancer who has hosted a cable TV show and was the first runner-up in the Junior Miss and Miss Buffalo pageants. A full-time mom, Littman is also a part-time jingle singer for local radio commercials. She has been married for six years and has two children.


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