The Science of Fear: An Interview With “Scare Expert” Margee Kerr

Among other things, sociologist and fear pundit Margee Kerr advises haunted-house designers on how to best terrify people (or, to “improve their scare experiences”), and this Halloween season she’s working with The ScareHouse, in Pittsburgh. Each week leading up to October 31, they’ll be releasing new installments of Scare U, a web series that explains why we’re freaked out by what freaks us out. I emailed her — in blood.

Margee, how did you become a “scare expert”? That is amazing.

Well, it’s been a long journey! It all started when I was a kid and read Frankenstein. I really identified with Frankenstein’s monster and his quest to find a place to fit in. I was also struck by how society fears anything, and anyone, different. I wanted to understand that more, so I started just observing people and ‘in’ groups and ‘out’ groups. This eventually turned into a love of sociology. My focus throughout undergrad and then into grad school was on the history of psychiatry and medicine.

When you want to find out what people are afraid of, looking at what we define as ‘sick’ is a good place to start. Our definitions of illness, and the changing levels of attention given to different illnesses over time, can really reflect what’s happening politically and culturally in society at large (for a longer conversation and example of this, there’s some really interesting literature on the ‘discovery’ of more ‘female disorders’ as women’s equality was gaining steam and women were moving more directly into the workforce — check out the book ‘They Say You’re Crazy’ by Paula J. Caplan).

In addition to absorbing as much information about how society deals with (and fears) human difference, I became increasingly interested in the biology and chemistry of fear. I love learning about how our body reacts in those fight-or-flight situations. This interest really came out of my own desire to understand why I enjoy roller coasters, haunted houses, and things that make me jump. I also really wanted to understand why, in a society in which we are consumed with fear and use it to sell SO MUCH, we go out and seek frightening situations.

I think the last piece of the ‘Scare Specialist’ puzzle became complete when I got to analyze customer response data from The ScareHouse. I was given a huge data set full of open-ended responses from customers detailing what they found scary. It. Was. Fascinating. I did a lot of content-analysis work for my master’s and dissertation, but none of that compared to analyzing what normal people find scary. I think what was most surprising is that there were actually a lot of similarities and patterns. You would think that fears would be a very individualized experience, but we really are kind of ‘hardwired’ to be afraid of certain things. So, it’s been a winding road, but basically — I love studying fear because it really is the study of people and society.

And what did people find scary?

The most surprising finding from the survey included the fact that lot of people are terrified of scary children, or children that ‘didn’t look right.’ This suggests that we have a very keen awareness and attachment to how children are supposed to act, and we are concerned, even scared, when they aren’t acting appropriately or worse scaring the pants off us!

Many people are also very afraid of traditional things, like spiders and snakes and bugs, which definitely supports the research done looking at whether we may even be ‘hardwired’ or have evolved to fear these kinds of critters. The idea is that we spent generations in an environment filled with scary reptiles so that fear worked it’s way into our family tree to be passed down the line.

What do you find scary?

I actually can really freak myself out about bridges. I have recurring dreams that I’m driving on a bridge and it just disappears in front of me and I go driving off into the water. Living in Pittsburgh, I get a chance to confront this fear A LOT.

Why do some people enjoy being scared? It makes no sense — NO SENSE — to me. Except maybe the sexy, clinging-to-someone-during-a-horror-movie aspect, but even then …

I’ve thought about this a ton. There’s so much ‘real’ stuff to be afraid of today — stability, security, the environment, we don’t have to go far to find something scary. But those fears are more abstract, and it’s hard to feel any sense of control over them. The ‘startle’ fears, or those things that activate our fight-or-flight, they can be fun and give us back that sense of control and achievement in the face of fear. Every night we turn on the news and hear all these depressing, scary things, and they just sort of sit there — there’s no closure and little we can do about them. But when we go into a haunted house or watch a scary movie, we have that ‘I DID IT’ moment at the end, the big pay off. We feel like we faced something and beat it and came out on top. It’s a huge rush of dopamine and adrenaline too, so that, physically, is making us feel pretty awesome, strong, even euphoric. Combined, ‘safe’ scary experiences can then be both psychologically fulfilling and biologically stimulating.

What IS the feeling of being scared? What’s going through our heads?

The feeling of being scared starts before we’re even really aware of anything scary. Before we realize it, our senses can pick up on something threatening. A smell, a sound, a flash of light, or even something we catch in the corner of our eye. When our senses pick that up, the message is sent to the amygdala, which is kinda like the brain’s watch tower. The amygdala puts the body into alert mode, gets the heart rate going, and starts activating all the fight or flight responses. It takes a second or two more for our brain to realize if the threat is real or not. If it’s not a real threat, we can start thinking and rationalizing about what’s happening and assessing the situation. If it’s a real threat, our body goes into overdrive trying to gather information.

The feeling, though, is pretty exhilarating … to some! New research is suggesting that people’s enjoyment of threatening situations is directly related to their dopamine production and receptors. More dopamine = more fun being scared. Dopamine is basically like a natural drug high, it makes us feel euphoric and happy, so it can be quite a rush. But for some, feeling scared is horrible. It can be traumatic and totally debilitating. I think we all have that point of ‘okay this isn’t fun anymore’ in scary situations — it’s that moment when you stop feeling safe and start really feeling threatened. We’ve all probably been there at some point. I remember white water rafting and having an amazing time coming inches to the rocks while flying down the river, but then there came that moment when the raft just was not making it to the right point in the river and real fear took over and panic kicked in. Those moments are very different then the safe scares we find in movies and haunted houses.

Scariest movie of all time?

Oh man, this is such a hard question for me. I think I ruined a lot of really scary movies because I read about them first so I knew what was coming, I’m trying not to do that anymore. This is probably completely cliché but it’s the truth, I was terrified during The Exorcist. I don’t know that it’s the scariest movie of all time, but for me it had the most ‘OMG’ moments. For most people they scariest movie they’ve seen is also going to have a lot to do with how old they were when they saw it (I was I think only 11, so yeah …), who they see it with (I watched it with my sister, who was also thoroughly freaked out, so our fear just fed off each other), and the social context (movie theater, home, drive in).

Are you dressing up for Halloween this year?

I am totally dressing up for Halloween. I LOVE getting some serious scary make up. Usually I go for something that makes me look like I’ve been through a horrible battle or am partially skeletal, but this year I might go for something a little more whimsical. It’s so much fun to look in the mirror and see something completely different .

If you were to create something purely terrifying — a situation that someone could be in for five minutes, say — what would it be? Or I guess another way of asking that is: what is a perfect storm of fear catalysts?

Oh this is a fun question! Definitely creating the perfect fear catalysts involves engaging all the senses and confusing our brains. I don’t know if it’s the fact that winter is on the way, but right now the scariest thing to me would be the re-creation of a snow storm — so it would be freezing, with little to no visibility, very little light, with no clear path to follow and random walls that you would run into. Add in a few snow monsters grunting and scrambling around, and you’ve got one scary situation!

Do you throw amazing Halloween parties? (Do you scare your friends?)

I unfortunately have not thrown a Halloween party since I think 2005. It was a pretty amazing one, and I did scare a lot of people, but not on purpose — the upstairs bathroom flooded (thanks to a failed attempt at dunking for apples)! But the next one I throw you’re definitely invited!

The ScareHouse opens on Friday, and new installations of Scare U will appear every Wednesday until Halloween.

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