Why People Will Pay to Feel Scared

A sociologist studies the allure of haunted houses.

Rick Wilking / Reuters

People have been scaring each other on purpose for a while—ghost stories are part of many oral traditions—but the history of paying others to get scared is a bit shorter. One early instance of commodified fear dates back to  the mid-1700s, when Russians paid for fast-paced sleigh rides on icy mountain tracks lined with spooky paintings. Two centuries later, Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion opened in Southern California, establishing the modern notion of a haunted house.

More recently academics have started studying why consumers would pay to feel fear. “Most sociologists really stick to fear as it works in society as a negative force—fear splitting people apart,” says Margee Kerr, herself a sociologist and the author of the recent book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.

Kerr teaches college courses in medical sociology, but has an unusual side gig: She consults for ScareHouse, a haunted house in Pittsburgh with 150 employees that, according to her, has about 3,000 customers a night during its peak season. It’s her work there—which involves observing customers and analyzing feedback surveys—that convinced her that the desire to be afraid was worthy of sociological study. I spoke to Kerr earlier this month, and the interview that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Joe Pinsker: Do you have a sense of how the haunted-house industry is doing right now? Is it a pretty stable industry? Was it hurt by the recession?

Margee Kerr: I would love to know the truth, but there is a very disorganized haunted-attraction association. They all view each other as competitors, so they don't share numbers, or what works or what doesn't. Are hay rides doing well, versus indoor attractions? It's also hard because there's no standard for what a haunted house is. So the guy down the street opening up his house for one night a year and charging $5 is being lumped in with a place like ScareHouse, which is operating year-round and bringing in thousands of people.

Pinsker: It's really funny to hear you say this. Part of my job is a slow realization that everything that I assumed as a kid to be ragtag and impromptu, like baseball cards, are the result of a series of sophisticated business calculations and planning. So it's funny to hear that this is really a part of the world where it truly is as disorganized as I imagined it to be.

Kerr: Yeah, I think that a lot of the mega-haunts today are doing thousands of people. They grew out of the sort of old-school, tied-to-a-church, family-friendly haunts. Just in the past three years, I’ve seen a big trade show, a haunted-attraction show, but new people in the industry are not going to a lot of these trade shows. I think the next generation of haunters are much more progressive and much more forward-thinking, and they're not really lumping themselves in with this old guard of haunted houses. But I think people are coming to expect more from haunted houses, and so that is leading to smaller haunts not doing as well or just closing altogether.

Pinsker: I read in your book that after going through the data collected by the haunted house you worked at, you predicted the rise of zombies back in the late 2000s. Can you talk a bit about that? Do you have any theories about why zombies had their moment?

Kerr: Yeah, that was really fun. I remember getting that data set and looking at it thinking, "Wow, zombies are really starting to be a thing." That was before The Walking Dead. It was right after the recession. 2008, 2009 is when a lot of Millennials were graduating from college or just entering college. I think that it was sort of speaking to this fear that they were going out into the world with no real hope. I don't have any evidence to support a theory like this, but I think that they were really concerned that the apocalypse was going to happen in their generation. I think that the zombie narrative probably landed a pretty good connection with them—all hope is gone and it's a man-eat-man world trying to get jobs.

Pinsker: What’s the single best example that comes to mind of a feature that now exists in the haunted house as a result of collecting all this data and figuring out what people wanted?

Kerr: Wide eyes. I said that for everything that they do in marketing and also in the haunt, they should focus on trying to include very big eyes. Because seeing the whites of the eyes triggers the amygdala—they've looked at this in FMRIs—so a lot of the branding, a lot of the posters and flyers, feature faces and eyes instead of buildings or inanimate objects.

Pinsker: Taking into account all of the data that you've collected, what would you say is the single thing that consistently freaks everyone out?

Kerr: They hate it when I say this, because it's easy and it's pretty cheap: It's just the sound startle. It's almost impossible not to react to it. A loud air cannon, a blast of sound—you can't help but jump. It's just so hardwired into us to be scared of something that is that loud and that startling. So when that is combined with a flash of light and also maybe a person that's jumping out, then it's great.

Pinsker: Interesting. I get that they're hard not to respond to, but I feel like the thing that would be scariest would be something that triggers a deeper, mental fear, as opposed to sort of a quick thing.

Kerr: We've played around with this and you can see how critical the startles are to the whole narrative scene. If you go through a room and there aren’t any sound effects on—and I’ve done this before—you're like, “Oh, wow, this person is coming at me with a knife!” It's scary, but it's not disconnecting your thinking brain. We need the startles in there to keep that thinking brain offline, so the psychological scares are actually going to be terrifying. Otherwise it's just sort of like walking through a play.

Pinsker: What’s the history of haunted houses and haunted attractions in the U.S.? Where and when were the first ones?

Kerr: The first ones are often traced to the freak shows and P.T. Barnum and his house of oddities, with all of the weird stuff on display. But the haunted houses that we know of today—a linear walkthrough attraction where things pop out and scare you—really started with the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. Walt Disney had had that idea rolling around since the late ‘50s, but it didn't open until the ‘60s. And then there's the junior associations, which began doing their charity haunted houses for people to walk through, an up-in-six-weeks-and-gone kind of thing. But it was in those, and the haunted houses run by firefighters and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, where people currently in the industry got their starts. When you go around and talk to all the haunters and you ask them where they started, it's usually in a volunteer charity haunt.

Pinsker: So all of these charities are theoretically very loving, benevolent associations, but for six weeks of the year they’re actually trying to scare kids?

Kerr: Well what's so funny, is that yeah, how scary could they really be? If they got too scary they would be condemned. I think that's a lot of the reason why people in the industry started their own attractions, so they could be more creative.

But you didn't really see any of the mega haunted attractions until the ‘90s. “Terror Behind the Walls” [an attraction at Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary] opened in 1991 and even that was black plastic and bats, not real high-quality. But it started picking up throughout the ‘90s, and that’s when it really became an actual business, and actual industry. Still today, there are probably fewer than 50 haunted houses in the U.S. that can sustain themselves all year just from their open season. Probably 3 percent of the entire industry functions as professional haunted houses.

Pinsker: You mention in your book that haunted attractions are a male-dominated industry.

Kerr: Oh my God, yes.

Pinsker: How has that shaped the kinds of things that haunted houses have displayed over the years? Are there certain tropes that come up that really wouldn't exist if this were an industry that was more gender-diverse?

Kerr: Definitely. I've gone through so many haunted houses and you see the same scenes over and over again. It's the annoying girlfriend, the annoying mother, an evil woman trying to murder other people, or someone trying to murder an evil woman. It's just old, and it's tired. Every year I'll go and look at new marketing materials and think, “God, we're in the 21st century. Are we still doing the helpless female victim running up the stairs being chased by an axe murderer?” I get real tired of the fact that horror is necessarily going to be depicting violence against women. It makes me mad.

Pinsker: I want to talk a little bit about the theories behind this. What is the root of the pleasure of being scared on purpose?

Kerr: It's coming from the chemicals in our body—the dopamine and endorphins and the oxytocin, all the neurotransmitters and things that are coursing through our body. I think that the pleasure is in hijacking the set response, when we know we're safe, and just enjoying the natural high. But there's also the psychological component. We have fun doing these scary things because it leaves us feeling really confident in ourselves, because we've done something challenging and we survived. So that is going to make us feel like pretty badass, even though we know it's fake. And it's the guaranteed outcome, kind of cheating in a way, because you know that you're going to make it out and be okay and you still get to feel good.

Pinsker: You touched on this a little bit earlier when you were talking about how people had a certain appetite for an apocalypse narrative after the recession, but are there any trends that you can recognize in year-to-year fluctuations in how much people want to get scared? The first example that came to mind was maybe right after a massive tragedy, like 9/11. Do people not want to be scared as much because they have plenty of real fear in their lives?

Kerr: What’s interesting is that we see an uptick in attendance, even attendance to scary movies, after war and after tragedy. 2003, 2004, after the Iraq War, that was a lot of haunts' best season. And same thing with after 9/11. A lot of haunts did really, really well. In trying to make sense of that, I think that in haunted attractions, you get to bring fear to play on your turf, so it's reappropriating that whole thing in your own terms and dealing with it. And a lot of soldiers who like haunted houses have said that this is a place where fear is happening on their own terms and that feels really good, because they are taking the power away from the unexpected threat.

Pinsker: You’ve also looked into how places that are more violent than parts of the U.S., such as Mexico or Columbia, feel about simulated violence. What have you learned so far from that?

Kerr: It appears that those who grow up or are raised in societies that have [high levels of] violence don't seek out or engage with the symbolic violence as much. I think it’s a reflection of long-term socialization, because we see soldiers who really like scary video games and haunted houses, but their exposure to violence has been different than someone who has been raised and grew up in a society where that was the norm, where going out on the street and potentially being robbed was an everyday worry. The benefits that people get from engaging with fear in the U.S., they are doing that because they don't get what people who have grown up in Bogota have already gotten. It comes back to that sense of confidence in oneself. Colombians know that they can handle it. I, on the other hand, need to go out and test myself a little.