K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

I’m currently teaching a course called The Psychology of Fear and Terror. I decided to open it with instructions on the qualitative analysis of frightening experiences. Each student described his or her own experience (a protocol statement) and then collected statements from acquaintances. The goals were to learn this method and to better understand the complexities of individual experiences.

Students learned that fear overlaps other emotions, some obvious but others surprising. Obvious were anxiety, stress, terror, and concern. Hope was a surprise, but hope can be a strategy for blunting or blocking fear. The experience has both physiological and emotional dimensions. It can be immediate or delayed, and it can elicit a fight-flight-or-freeze reaction. It might be short-lived or have long-term repercussions. Different people in similar situations, such as pilots flying with disabled engines, might report quite different experiences.

One student wanted to plunge the class into an experience of fear by visiting a reputedly haunted psychiatric facility. Most were eager to go. As I write this, we are a day away from that trip.

The goal of such analysis is to identify specific elements in an experience, based on oral or written protocol statements. The statement is a description that offers the opportunity for textual dissection. Aspects of the content are rephrased into basic categorical units, called “meaning units.” A description of a dry mouth is a single meaning unit, as is trembling, shallow breath, or the anticipation of dire consequences.

The intent is to keep the units as close to natural expression as possible while also translating them into more basic phrases for comparison with what other subjects say. This way, researchers can gather seemingly diverse expressions from different documents into a similar category: “Subject expresses intense concern about a future event” or "Subject describes acute auditory focus."

The more meaning units collected, the more complete the experiential structure. Those units that were described only rarely are included as “atypical.”

The process of qualitative analysis is criticized as being highly subjective, but objectivity increases with the inter-subjective agreement of multiple qualified coders. Reliability is based on consistent agreement and it improves by increasing the number of qualified coders and analyzed samples.

Obviously, undergraduates just learning the process are not qualified coders, but this was an introduction for them. The student who organized the “experience of fear” class trip chose Pennhurst State Hospital in Spring City, PA. We would arrive at 10 p.m. and stay well past midnight. The context itself provided a few meaning units.

This place was founded in 1903 as the Eastern State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic. It opened five years later when a commission identified several thousand “feeble-minded” patients in hospitals, almshouses, reformatories, and prisons that were suitable for transfer. However, in some cases, they neglected to evaluate the suitability of staff.

Apparently, quite a bit of abuse took place behind closed doors in the overcrowded facility, but it was not until the 1960s that an investigative journalist exposed what was happening with a series of TV news clips. In 1983, nine employees were indicted on charges of physical abuse, which included making patients assault one another. Due to these scandals and to a stunning amount of debt, the hospital closed.

The state sold the deteriorating property to developers. The Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance was formed to advocate for certain uses of the site. They obtained a grant in 2010 to renovate. The administration building, partially renovated, opened as the Pennhurst Asylum Haunted House. A museum is planned for another building, similar to the use being made of the ageing Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Other buildings are planned for destruction.

Weird Pennsylvania includes a write-up about Pennhurst's paranormal reports and the Travel Channel show, Ghost Adventures, filmed an episode there. The team interviewed people with knowledge and experience of terrible events from the past.

For our purposes, students will be given meters, recorders, instruments and instructions. They have written their protocol statements for their anticipation of visiting this place in the dark. Afterward, they will make a comparison between their anticipation and their actual experience. 

If we see a ghost, that's a bonus.

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