Fear is one of the most primal feelings, but it’s also one of people's favorite emotions to explore. From roller coasters to horror movies, people will line up for hours for the chance to feel their hearts pound and adrenaline course through their veins. But at one Pittsburgh haunted house, the scares aren’t just cheap thrills: They’re helping scientists figure out how fear works.
"Humans have been scaring themselves and each other since the birth of the species, through all kinds of methods like storytelling, jumping off cliffs, and popping out to startle each other from the recesses of some dark cave," Margee Kerr, staff sociologist at Pittsburgh's ScareHouse, told Allegra Ringo for The Atlantic. "But it’s only really in the last few centuries that scaring ourselves for fun (and profit) has become a highly sought-after experience."
Kerr joined ScareHouse in 2008 to help make the haunted house even more frightening while studying how visitors respond to the spooks. Customers sign a waiver before they enter the house, essentially agreeing to become volunteers in Kerr’s tests, like a moment where visitors are trapped in a coffin by an actor playing a spectre of Death. Moments like these test how people respond to claustrophobia and the threat of dying, Chau Tu reports for Motherboard.
"Lots of people also enjoy scary situations because it leaves them with a sense of confidence after it’s over," Kerr told Ringo. "Think about the last time you made it through a scary movie, or through a haunted house. You might have thought, 'yes! I did it! I made it all the way through!' So it can be a real self-esteem boost."
According to Kerr, the key difference between enjoying a scare and being truly frightened is knowing whether or not you’re in real danger.
In the case of the coffin, Kerr discovered that a minute is the best length of time to keep a visitor trapped in the small space: After about 20 seconds, people tend to start panicking because they start to wonder how long they might be stuck. After a minute, they might truly fear for their lives.
When you get scared, your body is flooded with chemicals like dopamine, adrenaline and endorphins, all of which can help you survive a life-threatening situation. Luckily, the brain can quickly sense whether the environment poses a real threat, letting you enjoy the heightened experience without actually fearing for your life. But while even though Kerr’s job is to learn how to scare people, what frightens her is how easily these responses can be triggered.
“Learning how the brain works and how we can change and manipulate what we feel and experience leaves me quite scared—it is an existential crisis in the truest sense,” Kerr tells Tu. “Who are we if we can control our feelings, and manipulate our memories?”