Thursday, October 22, 2015

Who's With Me?: I Totally Want to Go To a Haunted House Engineered by a Sociologist Who Studies Fear

Goddammit why am I up so early reading books about fear in my Hello Kitty pajamas?
'Tis the season for Halloween-esque reads, so I finished reading Scream: Chilling Adventures In the Science of Fear (PublicAffairs) by Margie Kerr. She's a sociologist prof but also works for ScareHouse, a haunted house in Pittsburgh. She also co-runs academic studies of fear. She went around the world researching fear in different contexts: roller coasters, places rumored to be haunted (like abandoned prisons), countries known for their high crime, a Japanese forest with a reputation for high suicide rates, etc. It's a fascinating read but also, it's a bit like the charmingly chatty and fun science writing of Mary Roach (who wrote books like Spook, Gulp, and so on). But it also has that personal journey feel to it to. So it's more than a sociological or scientific study. It's sort of memoir-y and sometimes kind of natural history-ish too.

Kerr gathered some very interesting cultural information about they way we process fear. For one, people who live in places that already have a high crime rate (like the city she went to in Columbia) have to deal with fear of existing in their everyday life which is already terrifying, so the country's artistic output doesn't include a lot of horror. Generally speaking, countries that are scary to live in don't have a lot of horror movies or horror film fests; they don't need it. But places that are safer to live in have much better horror movies. That is to say, the fear we associate with horror-inducing entertainment (haunted houses, horror movies etc.) is encouraged in places where generally speaking, we feel it is safer. That may be why America has so many haunted houses, horror film fests and "spooky" culture. You only "enjoy" roller coasters if you know it's safe to lie back and know in the back of your mind that you are not going to die (although your nervous system might disagree). It's as if you can only enjoy an experience you've paid to scare you if you know in the back of your head that it's safe.

Also, she learns that people enjoy terrifying experiences like horror movies, haunted houses, roller coasters or rappelling down from high places if they have someone to share it with, which is why you feel jazzed when you come out of the haunted house with your friends; you feel energized even though you were sort of terrified, and you're laughing but also sort of crying. It's that emotional release where all you want to do is talk to your friends about what you went through together. This was something the author put into practice at ScareHouse (specifically in the Basement, which is pretty much her haunted house lab where people sign waivers to let them be part of the study, and where Kerr puts into play what she learned about how we process fear). For example, one of the things they do is tie you up with your friend, but you're both holding hands, which biologically releases some kind of bonding endorphin, where you bond more with the person you're going through the terrifying experience with.

I thought it was kind of awesome in the book that she explained all the fear-inducing experiences she went through, and then took what she learned and put it into play to make the most terrifying haunted house ever, which unsurprisingly makes me totally want to go there and experience it. If I know that the haunted house I was about to go into was engineered by someone who does scientific and sociological (read: academic) studies for a living to make the place as terrifying as possible, I would be there in two seconds. Road trip anyone? How many hours drive is it from Chicago to Philly?(Sidenote: also, I see ScareHouse has a Krampus thing too!)

Without having seen it I can't say for sure but I have to imagine that the ScareHouse is probably better than a lot of the haunted houses I've  experienced, and although I love them all, I prefer a well thought out story line as compared to dinky ones at places like the Wisconsin Dells. (Additional sidenote: when I was a kid I feel like haunted houses didn't have story lines -- they were just like, boooooo scarrrry a haunted houssssssse. Now it's like there's a whole plotline when you go into haunted houses. I can totally get behind this. Like I have heard said, we enjoy stories because we are hard-wired for a narrative.) The haunted houses at the Dells are, like, run by one person, usually a high school kid working for minimum wage, who has to run around shaking shit at you. (A final sidenote: The past couple years the haunted house I went to around Halloween here in Chicago is the Fear City haunted house which is pretty awesome. It's a whole story line about Chicago after the apocalypse, and there's even a CTA train that looks and feels pretty real. It's off the hook.) This weekend I'm going to Elgin where they do up parts of the downtown as some kind of apocalyptic showcase showdown with overturned cop cars and zombies and whatever else. True, I find zombie stuff kind of boring (they move slow! they're stupid! etc. -- I know, I'm in the minority with the being-bored-by-zombies thing, but it really is sort of poetically, the sluggish cultural entertainment industry phenomenon that well, won't die.). But I do like the idea of a transformed city. Getting the outdoors involved in a haunted house is sort of awesome. It reminds me of the time I was at a haunted house in DeKalb, IL, and somehow I ended up at the front of the line where I accidentally led us outside (or so I thought it was accidental) and everybody was like, "What the hell, you just led us outside." But then a man with a chainsaw came running after us, and the whole thing was so disorienting that it was genius. My friend who was behind me said that the burly guy was so scared that he was cowering behind her. And she's like 5'2".

At the end of the book I enjoyed how Dr. Kerr hooks up to a machine that measures her brain waves and gives her some very enlightening information about how she herself processes fear. I totally want to do that. If I had a machine that studies my brain waves I would use it every second of the day during everything I do. I should add that to my Amazon Wish List. People! Want to buy me a gift? Get me an EEG machine for home use! Apparently they have them now. The "MUSE" they're called. I did read in like Vice or something where someone used one and when put on some setting where it's supposed to give you some kind of feedback on helping you relax (I don't know what the hell I'm talking about) that whenever they'd be about to relax that it would start beeping or something and going, "YOU'RE NOT RELAXING" or something ridiculous like that. So anybody who plans on buying me one of those, make sure to get me one that doesn't do that. Ok thanks!

Also accepted: key lime striped socks from Sock Dreams and Savor the Scen​ery Cont​ainer Set from ModC​loth
Addendum: The reason I started writing about books on my blog is because I said that I would post quotes I like from books in sixteenth century Commonplace Book style, so here is the quote I underlined in the book from a passage I particularly enjoyed:

"[A study documented in] The Handbook of Emotion Elicitation and Assessment...offers an explanation...basically when we do evolutionarily salient activities (things that activate fight or flight or that influence our survival) by ourselves we find them less rewarding. We have evolved to be together, especially in times of stress."

I can totally understand this. It reminds me of how when you perform with a group as an ensemble, you share in the sometimes nerve-racking experience that can be more rewarding when it goes well. It also makes sense that when you bomb in a group performance, it's easier to get over when you all share the blame. Ha!

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