Extreme Haunted Houses and the Science of Horror

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It’s October, which means it’s time for me to watch stuff that scares me silly. Usually that means fictional horror films, but I recently watched a different kind of scary movie: a new documentary on Hulu called Monster Inside: America’s Most Extreme Haunted House. I expected it to just be a behind-the-scenes look at a particularly scary haunt, but it turned out to be much scarier, because it’s actually about a guy (Russ McKamey) who seems to be a demented sadist who runs a “haunted house” experience as a cover for legally (maybe) torturing vulnerable people for his own kink (including possibly sexually assaulting one participant).

So it’s a pretty disturbing movie but I enjoyed how it got really into the psychology involved on both sides: the psychology of the guy who comes up with and performs all this sadistic shit, and the psychology of the people who willingly sign up to do it, even after looking over a 40-page waiver that makes it harder to sue if they end up hospitalized, as one participant apparently was.

One review of Monster Inside describes the participants as “a specific thrill-seeking personality type,” which I think is actually the wrong way to put it. There’s been a lot of research on why we seek out scary experiences, but some of my favorite comes from the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University in Denmark. That’s right, a whole laboratory devoted to the scaries. 

Last year, they published a study that described three types of horror fans, the first of which is that “thrill-seeker.” That type of person gets an immediate positive reaction from the rush of adrenaline, and the mood boost they get is the reason they come back again for another haunted house or another horror film. That makes sense, and it’s certainly what I used to think of when I imagined a big fan of horror, but the researchers say that that’s a minority of the horror fans they interviewed.

The second type of horror fan is what I think I am: the “white knuckler.” The director of the Fear Lab writes that “the white-knuckler also loves horror, but for them, it is not so much a

question of intense stimulation as it is a challenge in keeping fear at a tolerable level. They employ a range of emotion regulation strategies to manipulate their own fear, as we have shown in another haunt study, and intriguingly, they feel that they learn something important about themselves, and that the experience allows them to develop as a person. They may feel that they learn about their own stress threshold, for instance, or that they get to practice and hone their ability to suppress anxiety.”

That makes sense to me, because I think of myself as being a bit of a wimp when it comes to scary movies. I feel legitimately BAD for the camp counselors being torn limb from limb. Horror comedies tend to be my favorite because they let me release some stress by laughing but I honestly still had nightmares after Evil Dead, Shaun of the Dead, and Cabin in the Woods. The only time I can actually relax and enjoy a horror is if the people who are dying are terrible people who deserve it, like the Nazis in Green Room. Or the Nazis in Becky. Honestly any horror film where Nazis die, 5 stars.

Yet I still watch scary movies where the victims are likable people. I just find those HARD to watch. So why do I do it? Well, this study maybe hits the mark: because I test my own limits, and I develop skills to manage my anxiety in a safe environment.

The third type of horror fan the researchers identified was “the dark coper,” and THIS is what I think best describes the people who sign up for these extreme haunts. The Fear Lab director describes this type as people who “reap all the benefits, reporting a mood boost as well as self-insight and personal development. Many dark copers have psychological issues and actively use horror entertainment as a kind of self-medication, for instance to manage anxiety or treat the symptoms of depression. They report using horror to navigate a world that they perceive to be scary.”

“Monster Inside” interviews several participants who agreed to let Russ McKamey torture them, and with the exception of one man who specifically went to expose McKamey as a con artist, they do seem young and damaged and vulnerable. They’re not just looking for a good cheap thrill – I think they’re looking for a kind of therapy. They’re exorcizing their demons, so to speak.

Obviously these categories aren’t hard and fast, and let’s be honest, any truly surprising results (which I don’t think this is) coming out of places like Fear Lab absolutely require replication to take seriously. I personally think that that third category of dark copers are just a more extreme version of all of us. Fear Lab researchers point out that humans find joy in fear from the time we’re born: what else is “peek-a-boo” then a jump scare for someone without object permanence? And as we grow, we chase each other around in games of tag, which are basically just nonviolent versions of “It” coming to get you. That doesn’t prove we evolved to find joy in fear, that this is an ADAPTIVE trait, but it does suggest that as a possibility: maybe experiencing fear in safe ways benefits us, makes us better able to deal with real-life scary situations, better able to cope with different kinds of horror. The morality brigade always worries about things like horror leading to desensitization–what if that’s not the risk, but the benefit?

And sure enough, Fear Lab did find that horror fans experienced less psychological distress during the start of the COVID pandemic. Maybe they inoculated themselves by playing with fear and uncertainty, enabling them to practice coping mechanisms in a safe environment. (But yeah, as always, replication would be nice.)

The problem, of course, as Monster Inside illustrates, is what if the “safe” place to feel that fear isn’t actually safe at all? All of which brings me to this: please don’t travel to bumfuck Tennessee to have a weird creep torture you for 7 hours because you wanna be on his TikTok. If you’re at that point, maybe it’s time to explore therapy.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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