'Paranormal feelings': Edmonton researchers study frightful sounds at haunted house

Edmonton researchers will trade in the glaring white sterility of a laboratory for a dank house filled with horrors.

Sometimes, what's just out of earshot can scare us the most

The fearful sights of the Deadmonton Haunted House will be used as the backdrop for a new study of sound and fear. (Deadmonton/Facebook )

A group of Edmonton researchers will trade in the glaring white sterility of the lab for a dank house filled with horrors.

The psychologists from MacEwan University will be mingling with growling zombies, wailing ghosts and all things that go bump in the night at the Deadmonton Haunted House, located on Jasper Avenue, this Halloween season.

They want to find out what fear sounds like.

The team, led by professors Rodney Schmaltz and Nicole Anderson, are researching how the presence of infrasonic waves changes how people experience the haunted house.

'Paranormal feelings'

A bump in the night, a clap of thunder, a tap on the window. Some sounds can be terrifying.

But sometimes, Schmaltz says, it's what's just out of earshot that can scare us the most.

"A lot of paranormal feelings can be explained by infrasound," Schmaltz said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"When people go into an old house, in the basement, they'll often report feeling a ghost or a presence, and it could just be low rumbling pipes. It gives that sense of awe or suspense."

Infrasound sound waves, with low frequencies below 20 Hz, are undetectable to the human ear, but people who have been exposed to these tones for long periods have reported feeling uneasy, fearful or even nauseous.

Scientists have theorized that people who think their homes are haunted might be in fact responding to the presence of infrasound tones rattling around in old pipes.

"They feel something and they don't know what it is," said Schmaltz.

"So if you believe in ghosts or you're in an old building and you've got that creepy feeling you might mis-attribute that to a ghost or spirit."

Enhancing fear 

Schmaltz and his team will use a subwoofer and a frequency generator to pump these sound waves into the haunted house inside the old Paramount theatre, now home to the Deadmonton Haunted House.

Half of the 50 volunteers involved in the blind experiment will scurry through the house with the eerie sounds turned on. The others will experience the frightful event without those low sound waves.

"We're tracking brain activity, heart rate and the just subjective feelings of fear," said Schmaltz.

"We want to see if we can enhance fear. So, if that infrasound is playing, does Edmonton become even more terrifying?"
What a fright: researchers are curious whether inaudible tones called infrasound can make the haunted house even more terrifying. (Deadmonton/Facebook )
 Although the research will be useful to those looking to orchestrate spooky experiences, their findings will have importance beyond the Halloween season.

Infrasonic waves can be created by heavy traffic, wind turbines, diesel engines and large industrial operations and, Schmaltz says, knowing how they affect human biology could have wide-reaching implications.

"Part of what we're looking at is this fear response, but we're also tracking what's really going on to see if infrasound really has a physiological effect on people," he said.

"Infrasound is usually at such low levels that we don't notice it, but it's all around us."

The researchers are still looking for more participants for the study, which will take place during the day and evening on Oct. 17, 19 and 24. The first round was held Oct. 12.

If you'd like to sign up to be a lab rat in the infrasound experiment you can find more information on Deadmonton's Facebook page.


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

With files from Ariel Fournier