Eccentric’s Corner: She Knows Why You Scream

Margee Kerr spends her evenings watching people melt down at one of the country’s most popular haunted houses. In her new book, she shares what really scares us, why we love it, and how pros like her stay a step ahead of us.

By Gary Drevitch, published on September 1, 2015 - last reviewed on June 10, 2016

In 2008, Margee Kerr was a grad student in Pittsburgh working on her dissertation and in desperate need of a break. On a whim, she went to the city’s Scare House haunted-house attraction, and her life changed. Soon she began working at the house, where watching people scream (and worse) inspired her to travel the world researching what terrifies us all, and why. The result is her book, Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, on shelves in time for Halloween.

What can a sociologist do for a haunted house?

Analyze customer-survey data and find out what people are really saying. When I started, I had a light bulb moment because I saw that there was an entire side to fear that I’d never looked at. I had been studying fear and uncertainty as motivators for parents who didn’t want to vaccinate their children. I thought of fear as a toxic experience related to discrimination and depression and all the things that as a sociologist I tried to combat. 

And what did you discover?

People also love to be scared; they love to feel the thrill of anticipation and to be in the dark alone. I started digging into fear—what happens in the body and in the brain. Sociologists and anthropologists had written that fear is socially constructed and changes based on time and place. I saw that in my data, too: What people said they were most afraid of changed over time. I wanted to start doing my own participant observation, and Scare House was the perfect lab.

So you lurked behind the mirrors and holes in the walls?

That’s how it all started.

Margee Kerr PROFESSION: SociologistCLAIM TO FAME: Fear reasearcher at Pittsburgh's Scare House.

You’ve warned people to “bring a change of pants” to Scare House. Is there a mind-body connection?

There is! And it’s wildly misunderstood. A lot of people think that we soil our pants when we’re scared because the stimuli are so scary. It’s actually a result of our executive functioning taking a back seat to our limbic system, our “lizard brain.” Basically, we’re so scared that our brain prioritizes messages related to survival, and the messages telling us to “hold it in” cannot get through.

How do you influence what goes on in the haunted house?

I recently went through a new Scare House attraction that had two “high” scares in a row—with blasted air hitting around the head—and then, around the corner, there was another scare that came down from the ceiling. And I said that’s not the best idea because people’s attention is already going to be up there, so the better scare would be coming down to their feet, something that draws their attention down, because they won’t be prepared for that. It’s all about manipulating and violating prediction systems. 

You’ve also done brain scans of haunted house visitors. 

Yes, we recruit participants who have already purchased tickets. And they are really excited to be in the study, but we have to make sure they understand that it’s a real study and not another part of the haunted house experience!

What have you learned?

We’ve rated people’s mood before they go in the house, and after they come out, it’s improved significantly. The mean before entering is around 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, and after, it’s around 9. That’s an exciting finding because I do want to make sure that people are having a good time, that they’re going into the house to benefit themselves. But ours is also a population that is seeking these activities, so the question is: What is the difference between people who want these experiences and people who don’t? It would be great to study that, but more challenging because we don’t want to expose people to something they don’t want to experience. 

How else does being scared change our mood?

In our scans, we saw significant differences in how people processed negative thoughts. Before going into the attraction, we asked participants to ruminate on something negative for at least 30 seconds. And we saw changes in their brain waves after the experience suggesting that they did not get as caught up in rumination. They seemed to go through a stress recalibration. Our theory is that after you experience fear in a safe place, you feel that the little things don’t matter as much.

We know haunted houses aren’t real. Why do we still scream?

When we’re in these experiences, our arousal response shuts down the part of the brain that thinks rationally. We may know that we’re safe, but we’re not concentrating on that. We feel these things that we interpret as fear, anticipation, or exhilaration, but then in the moments in between them we can say, “Oh, wait; I’m safe.” That’s why people scream and then laugh. It’s known as “the low road and the high road.” The low road is the immediate response—the scream or the jump. The high road is collecting information from our hippocampus, our memories, and saying, “No, we’re in a safe place, we can enjoy this.” I like to think of it as an opportunity to hijack our threat response, enjoy it, and use it to our advantage.

As an expert, Can you get scared in a haunted house attraction? 

Yes, but I have to allow myself to get immersed in the experience. I can walk through a haunted house and not be scared at all, or I can be scared by everything. It’s genuine: I have a pretty sensitive startle reflex. But I have to make a decision beforehand to go all in. It actually makes me sad when I see people go into an experience saying, “I’m not going to be scared.” They’re just missing out on the fun. 

You write that seeing people in “their most primal state” in Scare House is a privilege. Why?

Most of the time, we let people see only the parts of ourselves we want them to see. We don’t often get to see each other experience something in the moment without any kind of masking behavior. We are all more connected than ever, but we rarely see each other’s true nature. As a sociologist, and someone who loves people, it does feel like a privilege to look behind the curtain and witness those moments.

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