The Psychology of Scaring

For many years, haunted houses have upped the ante to provide a real terrifying experience for the people that pay them. But there’s some psychology behind the scare.

Rob Dunfield, co-owner of Fear Factory in Salt Lake City, said people have many different phobias. Some people are scared of clowns, the dark, heights, spiders and more. Haunted houses prey on those fears to try to get the biggest scream out of their patrons. They want to reach a diverse audience to get as many people as possible to come to their attraction.

“Everyone has fears,” Dunfield said. “It’s the basic instinct of survival of why so many people get scared.”

Many haunted houses have studied the science and psychology behind scaring. Owners are constantly learning new approaches to scare their customers. Each year there are conventions for haunted house owners to go to and learn from other haunted attractions.

“We travel to conventions all over the country from Salem, Mass. to Austin, Texas to an organization that puts on haunts after the Halloween season,” Dunfield said.

He said people keep attending haunted houses year after year because they enjoy a pure adrenaline rush — people know it’s safe and no one will actually harm them, but they go for that surge of energy.

However, haunted houses try to make you feel unsafe by putting all of your senses on edge. They trick your brain into using the fight or flight response as if you were in a deadly situation. Haunted houses set the right mood by teasing your mind with smells, scary music, lighting effects, small rooms and uneven flooring.

“People have fears of preservation in all forms like fears of falling, someone attacking them with knives, and it’s part of the fun that people believe that they could die,” Dunfield said.

Caroline Felton, a freshman in history, said she doesn’t love the surprises.

“I hate the parts where you don’t know what’s coming next and cannot get control of the situation,” Felton said.

For Chelsea Taylor, a senior in English, the worst part of haunted houses are the clowns and chainsaws, but she also doesn’t enjoy being startled.

“I don’t like things jumping out at me ever,” she said.

Haunted house attractions work these fears to their advantage to set the scary mood for people. Around the state of Utah, many of these favorite attractions — such as the Hands On Horror level at Castle of Chaos — have become full-contact, meaning they have permission to touch and grab you. At Asylum 49 in Tooele, they won’t even let you enter the haunted hospital unless you’ve signed a waiver.

As you travel around the United States, there are some haunted houses that have fully embraced the idea of scaring. In San Diego, Calif., at McKamey Manor, they simulate a horror movie by throwing fake blood on you, putting tape over your mouth and scaring you with power tools.

Haunted houses have been around since the Egyptians began using scare techniques for unwanted guests and robbers in tombs. They would use similar scare stratagems like many haunted houses use today, such as moving walls, mazes and snakes.

Medical studies have shown people seek thrills, such as haunted houses, to do something different from a regular routine and feel proud of themselves for doing something threatening and unpleasant. According to Psych Central, 10 percent of the population enjoys adrenaline rushes from things like scary movies.

For Felton, that rush comes just once a year.

“Haunted houses are cool for Halloween,” she said. “But any other time of the year I would never go.”

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