A wide-​​eyed skeleton statue perched on a table in the corner of a dank stone-​​walled base­ment fol­lows vis­i­tors with its eyes. They aren’t sure if it’s a plastic dummy or a human, until the ghoul sud­denly lunges from its post and claws the air as the inno­cents scurry into the next room of a haunted house designed by Uni­ver­sity Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Psy­chology Lisa Feldman Bar­rett.

For nine years now, Barrett’s family along with her lab’s full-​​time research staff have been scaring locals using every­thing they know about the sci­ence of emotion.

A grad­uate stu­dent ghoul in the annual Newton Haunted House held by psy­chology pro­fessor Lisa Feldman Barrett’s family and lab mem­bers. Photo by Angela Herring.

One of the well-​​established, basic prin­ci­ples that makes things scary is uncer­tainty,” said post­doc­toral researcher Maria Gen­dron a post doc­toral researcher in Barrett’s Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Affec­tive Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory. The lab uses expe­ri­en­tial, behav­ioral, psy­chophys­i­o­log­ical, and brain-​​imaging tech­niques to study what emo­tions are and how they work.

The team of researchers-​​as-​​monsters cul­ti­vates doubt and ambi­guity by remaining com­pletely still until the final moment of fright. “It makes the fright­ening moment that much better with a nice build-​​up,” Gen­dron said.

The amyg­dala, the part of the brain that is impor­tant for fear and many other emo­tions, is highly sen­si­tive to the sclera, or the white part of a human eye­ball, she added, noting that the ghouls use this knowl­edge to their advan­tage by slowly widening their eyes and fixing their gaze on vis­i­tors to grad­u­ally reveal them­selves as living creatures.

In the haunted house, a dis­em­bodied head sit­ting on a mad-scientist’s platter pleads by silently mouthing the words “help me” as vis­i­tors pass into another room of the old base­ment, which is flooded with red lights as eerie sounds emanate from hidden corners.

We want all senses to be engaged,” said Gen­dron, noting that the team’s research has shown that mul­ti­modal stim­u­la­tion elicits a greater amount of arousal.

Bar­rett, who was recently hon­ored with a Director’s Pio­neer Award from the National Insti­tutes of Health, has been studying emo­tion for the better part of two decades. The haunted house idea orig­i­nated with Barrett’s then five-​​year-​​old daughter, who sug­gested that her mother take what she knows out of the lab and into the com­mu­nity by holding a haunted house to raise money for charity. Her desire to help hungry people, along with her own love of candy, were the main motivations.

This year, Bar­rett hosted her haunted house on Friday, October 25. The event has raised between $1,500 and $2,000 annu­ally for the Greater Boston Food Bank.