The Structure of Fear: Follow-up

Results from a psychology class experiment at a “haunted” asylum.

Posted Jan 05, 2018

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

In October, I wrote about an upcoming trip that my Psychology of Fear and Terror class was about to take, as an exercise in the qualitative analysis of the experience of fear. This is the follow-up. You can find the first part here, but I’ve given context below.

Prior to going, each of the 16 participants developed a description, known as a protocol statement, and 10 provided an “after” experience.

One student had organized the trip, taking us to the Pennhurst State Hospital, a former psychiatric facility which is now reputed to be haunted. She hoped to analyze fear of the paranormal in the anticipation of going to this place vs. the experience of actually being there. Specifically, she wanted to know whether diminishing anticipatory anxiety might inspire future open-mindedness.

The goal of such analysis is to objectively and systematically identify specific elements in an experience based on protocol statements. The statement offers the opportunity for textual dissection into “meaning units.” This way, researchers can gather seemingly diverse expressions from different documents into a similar category. The more units collected, the more complete the structure.

The deteriorating Pennhurst buildings are in Spring City, PA. Founded in 1903 as the Eastern State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, it opened 5 years later when a commission discovered over 3,000 “feeble-minded” patients in hospitals, reformatories, and prisons that were suitable for transfer.

Allegedly, multiple ongoing acts of cruelty and abuse took place in the overcrowded facility, but it was not until 1968 that an investigative journalist exposed it. Due to these scandals and to staggering debt, the hospital eventually closed.

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

Pennsylvania sold the property. The Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance was formed to advocate for certain uses of the site. The administration building has been partially renovated.

On the night of our excursion, we arrived around 10 PM and left between 3 and 4 in the morning. Students were given meters, recorders and instructions for exploring an empty three-story building. A few items from the Pennhurst days were on display (e.g., left), along with disturbing graffiti. A bonus was the opportunity to listen to a lecture from a team of experienced ghost hunters and to try their more sophisticated equipment. 

The student organizer then analyzed her data and developed a lecture to show how the experience had affected the participants. Not all of them provided the “after” description, but she had enough to make observations and discuss future refinements.

Before the trip, 16 students had collectively described 31 anticipated physical reactions; after the trip, the number of actual reactions was 13. Before the trip, half had admitted to a belief in the paranormal, 4 had said they were afraid of the dark, and 5 had said they were scared. Some had been skeptical but still interested and most had been excited.

After the trip, half said they had found evidence of the paranormal and nearly half said the experience had not been as bad as they’d expected. One-third said their emotions remained the same before and after, and the same percentage said they had an upset stomach. One or two said they were worried that “something” might follow them home. One slept with her lights on afterward.

Overall, there were fewer reports of negative emotions after the trip than while anticipating it. Some said that they were now more willing to test their personal limits. Despite obvious limitations, such as the small sample size and the difficulty of accurately measuring subjective responses, this excursion was a fun and interesting introduction to basic applied qualitative research.

“Taking my classmates to Pennhurst State School for the paranormal investigation,” said the student organizer, “was everything I was hoping for and more. I wanted to push them, shock them, even scare them a bit. In my experience, growth emerges only after comfort is abandoned, and my research proved just that. Some of my classmates overcame life-long fears of the dark, of ghosts, and of being alone. Some found proof of the paranormal, others found that it wasn’t nearly as strange as it seems on TV. At the end of it all, people who barely knew each other became like family, and I attribute that in part to my research. We had to trust each other, because we didn’t know what to expect.”

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