In America, October is reserved for seeking out scenarios that make you screech in terrified panic. In extreme situations, that may even include paying for entrance to an attraction that makes you wet your pants or puke on yourself/the unfortunate people standing near you. When running such a fear gauntlet, it’s normal to ask yourself “Why the fuck am I doing this?” Very few people, however, take that question out of the situation with them and base a career on it.
Margee Kerr did. She is a true academic — with a Ph.D., part-time faculty positions at a couple of Philadelphia universities, and ongoing research projects. “My days are mostly spent teaching, working with students, working on a grant with my colleague, and then traveling around and talking about fear,” she reports. But, that’s not where it ends. She also consults with haunted attractions to help them be as terrifying as possible. Sometimes, that means stepping in to offer a bit of advice, and other times it means an all-season gig, like this year with Eastern State Penitentiary’s Terror Behind the Walls. As if that’s not enough to keep a fear doctor busy, she does conventions and trainings for industry haunt owners and professionals. Yes, there are conventions.
She took some time from her busiest month of the year to talk with us about the science of fear, how our culture impacts what scares us, and the ethics of crafting a haunt. I was so interested in what she had to say that I spent a massive hunk of time on her website and then went straight to Amazon and bought her book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. As you read the interview, you’re sure to be hooked, too.
So, this is the big question. Why do we enjoy being scared?
It really comes down to how emotions are made, and that they’re constructed in time and place, so the times where we enjoy fear are the times where we know, ironically, that we’re actually safe and we’ve chosen to be there. In those moments we give different meaning to what our body is doing. For example, when we choose to go into a haunted house and we’re startled and our bodies are thrust into that fight or flight or threat response, our sympathetic nervous system responds and triggers the cascade of chemicals that start coursing through our bodies, many of which are associated with feeling good. And in those milliseconds where we realize that we’re not truly threatened, we can interpret that as fun scary, basically as thrilling, as exciting.
You can see it happen in people. Watching people go through haunted attractions, you can see that they scream and then they laugh and then they cling to their friends. They are giving different meaning to what their body is doing because the physical states of excitement and surprise and fear share a lot of ingredients; serotonin and oxytocin and dopamine, endorphins, all of these things that are associated with feeling good are released in times that we’re afraid. But when we give different meaning to it and say, “Oh, I’m safe. I’m okay.” We can enjoy it. So that’s one reason. At a physical level, we’ve got all of these things that are contributing to feeling good.
The other reason that we think people enjoy fear — and this is based on our data — is that people are feeling like they have accomplished something. Even though it’s completely safe, they still come out feeling like they’ve challenged themselves and overcome. The data that we have from two years measuring people’s expectations and experiences reports they feel more confident. They feel like they’ve challenged their fears, and then, they report increases in mood and decreases in negative affective states. It’s like running a marathon, or rock climbing, or taking on a personal challenge and making it through; you have this feeling of accomplishment, Even though you’re completely safe, it still feels real.
There are also really great social bonding moments. Friends typically go together and you’re going to feel more closely tied to them, and you’re going to feel like you just did something hard together. You were there for each other. It increases those bonds and allows us to form really deep-layered memories. We hang onto those memories and feel closer to our friends.