She frightened me with science

Photo by Mar­ilyn Roxie via Flickr.

You’ve just rounded the corner of a dark and musty base­ment. In front of you, chained to a stone wall amid a pile of femur bones and skulls, a young girl is plead­ingly mouthing the words “help me,” as a ghoulish figure paces the room.

Real­izing there’s nothing you can do for her, you move on. In the next room, another figure sits beside an altar, motion­less except for its pupils, which follow your approach.

Despite knowing that you’re in a fic­tional haunted house, you still can’t help but be scared. “We use what we know about the sci­ence of emo­tion to scare people,” said Lisa Feldman Bar­rett, a pro­fessor of psy­chology at North­eastern University.

The girl chained to the wall is Barrett’s daughter, Sophia. She has orga­nized the charity event every Hal­loween since she was nine, raising thou­sands of dol­lars for the Greater Boston Food Bank. The ghouls are Barrett’s lab members—post docs, grad­uate stu­dents and research assis­tants, all experts in get­ting people to feel par­tic­ular emotions.

One thing that makes people aroused, or acti­vated, is uncer­tainty,” said Bar­rett, who received a Pio­neer Award from the NIH in 2007 for her inno­v­a­tive work on emo­tion. “Once we’ve cre­ated that high arousal, uncer­tain feeling: that’s when we jump.” So, as you approach the still figure beside the altar, your heart jumps into your throat when the seem­ingly inan­i­mate figure thrusts out its arm.

When someone has the expec­ta­tion that some­thing fearful might be about to happen”—knowing that you’re in a haunted house, for instance—“that poten­ti­ates the startle response,” Bar­rett added.

The entire show—which took place on Saturday—is metic­u­lously chore­o­graphed: “Timing is impor­tant when you set expectan­cies and then vio­late them,” explained Barrett.

Instead of focusing on the guts and gore that char­ac­terize many haunted houses, Bar­rett and her team try to “build a creepy sense of terror.” But it’s also intended to be fun: “we want people to have a pleasant expe­ri­ence of fear instead of an unpleasant one,” she said. For that reason, they encourage vis­i­tors to explore the space. With a sense of own­er­ship in place, the ulti­mate fear factor becomes even more rewarding.

Chil­dren ages two to 92 got to choose from a menu of fright levels: scary, scarier and scariest. In all cases, their fear expe­ri­ence was most cer­tainly grounded in science.