Meet The Sociologist Who Makes Sure Haunted Attractions Are Terrifying

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.

Nice. All of that obviously seems very positive. A lot of that also seems sort of static … physical responses haven’t evolved a terrible amount, but the triggers do, yes?

Yes. I think we’re always going to have systems in place that are going to recognize startling things, so any startling lights, or sounds, or anything that we touch, or taste, all of those things are going to activate our sympathetic nervous system. But, when it comes to the things that we fear, they are very culturally constructed and located in time. They definitely change over time. We evolve to recognize certain things faster based on what we perceive as greater risks. It is an ever-evolving group of scary stuff over time.

Are there things being used in haunts contemporarily that represent modern fears? Well, I’m sure there are, but can you give me an example?

In the US, we saw the rise of the zombie genre growing from 2007, 2008, really hit peak in 2010/2011. That was also the height of the aftermath of the recession. I think there was definitely some representation of that angst and feeling of, “Oh, God, the apocalypse is coming and we’re all sort of reduced to these zombies just walking around. What are we going to do?”

And now I see a lot of diversity in different attractions. They’re playing with a little bit more aggressive, darker, bloodier stuff. I’m wondering if that is reflecting the times, and this real, growing concern over what’s going to happen in the future.

But, I’m also seeing some return to the classic tropes. I’m wondering if that could be a desire to escape reality right now, to really just kind of let all of the real fears behind and engage with something that’s going to feel a little bit more obtainable and a little more satisfying. It feels good to fight a vampire or a werewolf rather than face the threat of nuclear warfare. But I do think that this current political climate is definitely setting the seeds for that to happen in the months and years to come; we’re going to see the impact of that.

I think there’s a little bit of a delay between what’s happening in life and what picks up culturally, what hits a note. There’s always the stories, and there’s always the entertainment out there that features lots of different types of monsters. But, when one takes off like the zombies did in 2008, then I think it’s really like, “Okay, this is what’s tapping into a cultural collective feeling in this moment.” I’m waiting to see what kind of movies are being made right now and what kind of attractions we’re going to see next year. This year, a lot of the big attractions have already had their content, their storyline, all of that in the works since last year’s season.

I’m going to a smaller haunted attraction tomorrow night in Utah, and I’m super curious to see what that looks like. Because in the smaller haunts, you can get a feel for the more reactionary tone. And, of course, as a sociologist, I love to think about what everything could be representing and find a link to it.

Speaking of which, I recently wrote a list of haunted attractions that included Scare House. I was reading about it and my research discussed how they avoided exploiting vulnerable populations. I know you used to work with them. What exactly does that entail? Is that common?

I don’t think it’s common, and they didn’t have that before I worked there.

It’s all you?

It was. I really feel privileged to work with an attraction that was open to hearing those types of concerns and that these things were important. They were things that I had observed that were existing before I started working with them, but they didn’t have a clearly defined mission statement or boundaries that were being set.

I haven’t worked with them now for a couple of years, so I’m not sure how their approach may have changed, but it’s not common among haunted attractions, and certainly often not explicitly stated. I think that the attractions that are located in the more diverse and more densely populated cities have to think about these things because their demographic is thinking about them. When you go into places that are more homogeneous — if they’re predominately white or predominately Christian or predominately wealthy — these issues are probably not even being thought about because their customers aren’t bringing them up.

But in Philadelphia, the attractions have to think about who is coming through and whether they want to be sensitive to that based on moral or philosophical foundings, or if market pressures are forcing them to take this into account. That I don’t know. Ideally, it’s that people are like, “Yeah, we don’t want to exploit populations just for gain.” But it could also just be that they’re hearing from their guests that they don’t want to see this type of stuff. What’s interesting is that I can see it. I can see attractions struggling with it.

I went to Pennhurst Asylum which is also in Pennsylvania, but it’s about an hour outside of Philadelphia, so it’s in a more rural area. It used to be an asylum, and it was an asylum that had a tragic history of abusive power. It was not for those of mental illness; it was predominately for those with mental disabilities and a place where parents would drop off kids that they just didn’t want. There was a ton of abuse, and it became a haunted attraction. For years, it was horribly exploitive.

I wrote about it in my book, and in my book, I actually pulled back a lot after talking with my editor and having the questions of whether we would need to bring in lawyers. I backed off, but they did have scenes depicting the people who stayed there in very negative ways. It was going into the attraction, and the idea that these are people who we should be afraid of was confirmed, and it was just a case of further othering and dehumanizing people who were already in vulnerable positions.

It came under new management last year. This year, the changes were obvious; they were pulling back. They didn’t have the same type of highly exploitive scenes, and even in their marketing, were saying, “The doctors are the scary ones. We’re trying to split the power dynamic.” And they moved this little museum that they had on site because before it was placed in a way that was to set up visitors to further fear people who are different. But going just a couple of weekends ago, it was still really falling flat.

I appreciate that they’re trying to grapple with these ideas of power dynamics and vulnerable populations and asking, “How do we create a haunted house that’s located within a former asylum that’s not exploitive?” I don’t think that they’re quite there, but I can see that they’re trying.

So, it’s not inherently negative to deal with those populations, it’s how they’re dealt with?

Absolutely. I think that it is all a matter of how they’re dealt with. That’s what really makes me sad when I see reactionary opposition to themes without knowing how those themes are being represented, or the acting in them. I think that’s a real problem with reactionary politics in general. Let’s actually be okay with understanding that this is within a certain context and that we can talk about these issues and do so in a way that’s not going to further damage or hurt anyone. And we need to be able to do that because not having those conversations is even more problematic. Then, everything gets suppressed and goes into the dark corners. We need to talk about this stuff.

I read on your blog that being exposed to these things can cause you to be desensitized, but alternatively it can make you more sensitive to the issues.

That’s what’s really challenging and interesting within affective science research in general. A lot of it is figuring out when exposure to material is going to increase a sense of compassion or pro-social behaviors and when it’s going to increase a sense of defensiveness and kind of circling the wagons or desensitization and dehumanization. These are really tricky things because we do know that overexposure does lead to desensitization when we’re talking about a fear-learning paradigm. That’s how exposure therapy works, increasing exposure. We really don’t have good data on exposure via the news or exposure via consuming everyday information images that are presented on our TV. We don’t know as much about that.

Now, there have been some studies done with video games and first-person shooter games. I don’t think that we have enough to form a solid conclusion of what it does to us empathetically because the research is mixed. A lot of it is dependent on the age of the person and where they are developmentally, and it captures really flashy headlines. But, within the full context of the research we have on this, we know a lot about the fear-learning paradigm and classical conditioning, but outside of that, it’s a lot more relative and contextual.

Well, a lot of it depends, right, on having some level of cognitive flexibility?

Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Do you recommend that people go into haunted attractions with that analytical bent? Can you even maintain that when you’re being scared?

No. I think people should go in with a clear idea of what they’re there for. If they want to go in to have a good time, then lean into it, have a good time with your friends. It’s entertainment, after all. I think that the analytical part can come beforehand in choosing what kind of media you’re consuming and what kind of entertainment you’re consuming. That cognitive flexibility part is really crucial. You can go in saying, “I want to have a good time. I’m here because this is fun for me. So I’m going to just go in having fun,” And, then it’s okay to come out afterward and be like, “Oh, well, there are some things I didn’t like, and there are some things that I did like.” It’s about bringing a greater awareness to intent and purpose and being okay with saying, “I’m just going to suspend disbelief, lean in, and have fun,” versus, “I’m going in here with a critical mind to assess them with an agenda.”

And not everything needs that in life. I mean life would not be very much fun if we did that with everything.