As the weather turns cold and the days get shorter, people around the world prepare to celebrate Halloween with costumes, candy, ghost stories, and visits to haunted houses. Haunted houses have existed for at least a century, and they range from a few rooms in a neighbor’s house to the record holding half mile haunted hospital maze at Fuji-Q Highlands in Japan.
Sociologist Margee Kerr was fascinated by haunted houses since her first visit at age six. Halloween was her favorite holiday, and she says she was a “thrill seeker” from an early age. She went on to earn a BA at Hollins University and a PhD in sociology at The University of Pittsburgh.
In 2008, she was working on her dissertation when she visited ScareHouse and was immediately drawn in by both the thrills of the Pittsburgh haunt and the many questions it raised about the nature of fear. She asked the owner how she could help, and began analyzing data from customer surveys to increase the thrills.
In 2014, Kerr began a study with a neuroscientist to determine if this type of reaction can be used in mental health treatments. The researchers measure visitors’ anxiety levels before and after the experience. Kerr observed that as people go through the haunt, “they’ll scream but then they’ll immediately start laughing.” Haunted houses create an environment where we might be scared, but we quickly recognize we’re in a safe place. In this situation, fear can create positive emotions.
The researchers found that people’s moods improved after visiting ScareHouse, and there were differences in how their brains processed information. For people who enjoy being scared, it’s actually a relaxing experience rather than an anxious one. They termed this a “stress recalibration.”
In her book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, Kerr details some of the things she’s found through her studies and her own thrill seeking journeys. She also recently collected data from the participants during a paranormal investigation at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado.
Kerr teaches at Robert Morris University, University of Pittsburgh, and Chatham University, while continuing to learn more about the science of scares.
Written by Mary Ratliff