Fear (The Good Bits)

scream-coverMargee Kerr’s book “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear” is less a book about how fear works – the so-titled “science of fear” – and more about why we choose to be afraid. Because we do often choose it: the adrenaline rush of a roller coaster, the tension and chills of a scary movie, the scream-turned-laughter of a haunted house, or the heart-pounding thrill of standing at the edge of a great height.

The fear of these sought-after experiences is real. It affects our bodies in genuine ways, causing any number of physical, measurable effects, including sweating, increase of adrenaline, rapid heartbeat, accelerated breathing, increased muscle tension, and hyper-awareness. These effects are as real when we’re walking through a haunted house as they are when we’re genuinely afraid for our lives.

Having helped run a Halloween scare event in my local area, there is definitely something fascinating and, yes, even a little addicting about working in one of these spaces. A complete stranger gives you permission to manipulate their brain and their body in a way that would otherwise be unforgivable, and see them in moments of terror and vulnerability. Afterwards, they laugh with some of the most genuine delight I’ve ever witnessed and thank you for the experience.

This is where Kerr begins, observing customers at ScareHouse right in the midst of the experience through a peephole in the set:

“Something amazing is happening in this space. Each time I walk away I feel as if I’ve witnessed humans at their most basic and primal state. It’s a privilege. How often in life do we actually see each other stripped of pretense and social scripts? So I continue to crouch, staring through the peephole, watching customers scream in terror, actors poised on their toes watching and lying in wait to jump out and go ‘boo’, and I wonder how we got to this point and why all these people are standing in line for two hours to pay money for the chance to scream.”

This central idea – the question of why we opt-in to scary experiences – is the hub of Kerr’s book. Each adventure she has, personal story she recounts, and science topic she examines is a reinforcing spoke that drives her quest to understand this “why” forward.

It’s an interesting question to consider. Fear is certainly an extreme emotion, one we rarely experience with nuance, and one where context really does make all the difference. Running from a man waving a chainsaw at you in a haunted house: delightful fun! Running from a man waving a chainsaw at you anywhere else: very, very bad. We’d call both experiences being “terrified” but one ends with laughter while the other results in trauma.

Throughout her book, Kerr repeatedly returns to the themes of choice and control. What makes a frightening experience a positive or negative one is whether we choose to engage with it in the first place, and whether we have the control to end it. This is something that matters deeply to Kerr, and she considered both very seriously when helping to build ScareHouses’ “extreme” Basement option:

“First, it starts with choice. While the Basement 1.0 was built around principles of informed consent, I worried we hadn’t done enough to make sure customers understood the experience they were agreeing to. I realized this after my years of experiencing one too many haunts (some of them “extreme”) that had liability waivers but did not do a good job of informing me of what the experience would entail (they weren’t scary or fun or informative or a grown experience). Moreover, I’d read countless reports of experiences at haunted houses, some extreme, some not, immersive theatre productions, and entertainment events in general, free or otherwise, in which customers were simply not taken care of when it comes to physical and emotional safety.

“For example, some extreme haunted houses do not have a safe word, meaning there is no way, other than honest-to-God running for your life, that you can exit the experience in a safe and supported manner. Other extreme haunts that do have safe words have developed scenes in which actors, dressed as plant customers, say the safe word and are further tortured. To me, this is 100 percent no different from legitimate torture and kidnapping. Customers must always, always know they are in complete control of their experience; it is their choice to engage, and we are there for them.”

In our conversation, we talked about how important the idea of being in control is when it comes to creating positive fear experiences. Even when you are relinquishing control to someone or something else – to haunted house staff, to a scary movie, or to a thrilling experience like a roller coaster or CN Tower EdgeWalk – there’s an understanding that it is still, at its core, a controlled, safe experience. This assurance is the only reason we’re able to let go of the negative associations fear usually brings with it and enjoy the ride.

Fear triggers a rush of hormones like dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline. When we’re in danger, they heighten our awareness and ready our body for the time of “fight-or-flight”, but in a safe environment our brain kicks in a second later, and that extreme emotion can switch instantly from fear to relief and joy. That rush can be hugely addictive, especially when paired with the success and accomplishment of having made it through a challenge. We also rarely opt-in to be scared alone: most of the time, we’re with friends, sharing a moment of intensity and laughing about it together, building connections and strengthening bonds.

In addition to the science and her own personal adventures seeking out a good scare, Kerr takes time to carefully explore the sometimes extremely problematic ways we try to scare ourselves for a good time. In particular, I appreciated that she unpacked the ways we sensationalize tragic history, play on insensitive stereotypes, and leverage violence against women in our horror and haunted house culture.

In particular, in the chapters about her experiences at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, she weaves the science and her personal experience inside the walls with the heavy history of the place, always respectful of the people who in the past did not choose their time there.

“(Eastern State Penitentiary History Site) staff knows the content you’re engaging with is scary and makes sure that the dark and scary is balanced with messages of hope and stories of resilience. Most importantly, though, the nonprofit that runs the site does not sensationalize, exaggerate, or exploit the history of the building and the people inside it for profit. You tour the space, you learn the history, and you get scared, but through its messaging, its sculptures, and its commitment to helping people learn from history so as not to repeat it, ESP makes sure you leave with a feeling of deep understanding, not sensationalized atrocity. Even the haunted house is thoughtfully designed so as not to sensationalize ESP’s tragic history or make light of the serious issues surrounding crime and prisons today.”

She contrasts her positive experience at Easter State Penitentiary with another haunted house set up in a historic site, the Pennhurst Haunted Asylum attraction in Pennsylvania:

“In 2010 Pennhurst Haunted House, which was met with criticism and condemnation from mental health advocates who felt a haunted house on the grounds was insensitive, opened with the promise that they would not incorporate the history of the asylum in the attraction or exploit its former residents. Nevertheless, today the haunted house not only highlights its use of artifacts found on-site but also re-creates or reimagines scenes from the asylum’s awful history in which ‘insane’ patients are unapologetically portrayed as weak, damaged, and childlike, or on the other hand murderous, evil, and ‘demented’ – basically the stereotypes mental health advocates have been working so hard to combat.”

While Kerr’s book focuses on the positive, constructive side of fear, there is an awareness throughout that context is key. Conquering fear can be empowering, but if fear is paired with helplessness or becomes part of your daily background, that too can have serious side effects, including short and long-term mental and physical health problems.

“The body is always in its hyper-vigilant, “ready to run” mode, which is physically, emotionally, and cognitively exhausting. You are constantly processing excess cortisol and adrenaline, which disrupts your other systems. Among the effects are a weakened immune system, digestive problems (such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome), decreased fertility, heart disease, weight gain, metabolic syndrome (sometimes called “prediabetes”), sleep problems, fatigue, memory problems (the hippocampus shrinks), a slowing of cognitive processing, difficulty concentrating and controlling impulses, and depression.”

There’s a reason nearly all of the fun “opt-in” fear experiences we choose are relatively short: keeping our body primed in a fear response for an extended period of time is quite literally exhausting. It’s no wonder most of us follow a good scary movie up with a “Disney” chaser to take the edge off.

Margee Kerr was great fun to interview, and her book was an intriguing read. At times I wished she would have gone deeper into the hard science of fear, but I also found myself deeply appreciating the book she did write on other levels. “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear” is part pop-science and part cultural commentary. I may even re-consider my long-standing “no roller coaster” policy after reading this one.


Rachelle Saunders

Rachelle is the producer and one of the hosts of "Science for the People", a syndicated radio show and podcast that broadcasts weekly across North America. It explores the connections between science, pop culture, history, and politics. By day she slings code as a web developer and listens to an astonishing number of podcasts.

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