The science of the scare: Designing the perfect haunted house

‘It’s a matter of thinking creatively about novel, different, unexpected types of set-ups’ says fear expert Mari Ramsawakh

In BE AFRAID: The Science of Fear, a documentary from The Nature of Things, we meet Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear and is an expert on haunted houses. Kerr believes that the popularity of these attractions has a lot to do with our body’s “fight or flight mode,” when our breathing speeds up and neurotransmitters including dopamine and oxytocin — typically associated with feeling good — are released. Knowing we’re not in actual danger lets us enjoy this elevated state. “Afterwards, we can kind of claim the feeling of success and accomplishment that we actually did something that was truly stressful or truly threatening, and we made it,” she adds.

“Surviving” the experience also provides a sense of relief and grounds us in the moment. With the right kind of scare, we can leave behind the stresses of daily life, if only temporarily. So what goes into making the perfect haunted house?

Create the right conditions

According to Kerr, when it comes to a truly thrilling experience, context is everything. “To really enjoy being afraid, we have to have some knowledge that we’re not truly in danger,” she says,  “that we’re not truly at risk of serious bodily harm.” That sense of safety can be what turns a traumatic experience into an exciting one.

The perfect haunted house strikes a balance between making us feel afraid and letting us know that we’ll make it out at the end. One way to do that is to make sure participants can go through the haunted house with friends or a significant other.

“In those moments of intensity … we’re building really layered, complex memories that include these other people, and so we come to think of them as, you know, the trusted other,” says Kerr. “It becomes an incredibly powerful bonding moment.”

Find the perfect monsters

A haunted house wouldn’t be scary without monsters and ghouls, and finding the most frightening creatures can create the ideal atmosphere. According to Kerr, clowns make the “perfect monster.”

“You have somebody who has a painted-on smile, but their mouth is actually frowning. You can’t really get an idea of what they’re feeling or what they’re going to do,” she explains. “It’s dissonance. It’s our brain saying, ‘Is this person, you know, safe or not?’”

That dissonance is what’s behind some other iconic horror tropes, such as defiled childhood toys. These nightmarish objects take the familiar and distort them, confusing our senses and leaving us unsettled.

Use all the senses

Any one of our senses can be stimulated to elicit a threat response in a haunted house. Loud noises, flashing lights, optical illusions and even things that are surprising to the touch can all disrupt our predictive processing, Kerr explains, which is how our brains make sense of and navigate the world. “Anything that is surprising is going to startle people and activate the sympathetic nervous system,” she adds.

Our sense of smell can be especially powerful. “It’s the only sense where we’re actually sensing molecules from the environment that trigger the neurons to fire,” says Kerr. Smell has also been found to be strongly tied to our emotions and memories, making it an evocative addition to a haunted house (like filtering a smoky scent into a creepy, burnt-out bedroom).

But haunted house designers need to be careful: our brains understand fear and disgust differently, and adding a smell that’s too strong or revolting can pull people out of the experience.

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Keep it new and interesting

It is possible to overdo certain scares. Our startle reflex reacts strongly to surprises, but after repeated startles, that reflex can become saturated. This means that people will actually start to tune them out as they get used to them, so in an ideal haunted house, startling effects should be spaced out. 

Novelty also tends to work better than taking a room or scare to its grisly extreme. “It’s a matter of thinking creatively about novel, different, unexpected types of set-ups,” Kerr explains. “It’s about engaging people and surprising [them] in unexpected ways, instead of making things more violent.” In other words, it’s best to skip the gore and get a little inventive instead.

Watch BE AFRAID: The Science of Fear on The Nature of Things.


Available on CBC Gem

BE AFRAID: The Science of Fear

Nature of Things