Author: Margee Kerr
APA Style Citation
Kerr, Margee (2015). Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. New York: Perseus Books Group.
If you are looking for a fun addition to your motivation and emotion unit, look into Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. The book follows sociologist Margee Kerr, Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania who works as a professor at Robert Morris University, Chatham University, and the University of Pittsburgh and who also consults for ScareHouse, a popular haunted attraction in Pittsburgh. She has used her research at ScareHouse and the information she accumulated on a worldwide tour designed to challenge her personal expectations about fear to create an exciting account of physiological, social, and cultural factors that influence the emotion of fear. Scream takes the reader along for the ride as the author encounters some of the world’s most terrifying experiences. Some of the experiences include spending the night in an abandoned prison, confronting personal fears about death in Japan’s notorious “suicide forest”, participating in a ghost hunt, riding terrifying roller coasters, and circling the outside of a high building at the CN Tower EdgeWalk in Toronto, where participants are tethered to the skyscraper for an outdoor walk 116 stories off the ground. According to Kerr, her world tour of scary places led to a broader understanding of the emotion of fear “I learned how much we grow when we push ourselves beyond our comfort zones. I really did experience a personal transformation, and I want everyone to do something they are afraid of to see what happens as these emotions develop in the moment." She explores the appeal of horror films, skydiving, bungee jumping, diving with sharks, and roller coasters by engaging in many of these activities personally.
The book also discusses the negative aspects of fear, most notably PTSD. According to Scream, approximately 50-60% (estimates vary greatly) of Americans will experience a traumatic event, but only about 8% will develop PTSD. The research shows that biological differences among individuals may explain why most individuals recover. It has been hypothesized that those individuals who recover from trauma may have stronger connections between their prefrontal cortex and their emotional limbic system. Genes also are likely to be involved, in particular, a gene called FKBP5. Studies indicate that individuals who possess a particular expression of the FKBP5 gene were more likely to develop PTSD. Individuals who can more easily produce neuropeptide Y, which turns off the fight-or-flight reaction in the brain when a crisis is resolved, are better able to handle stress. Heritability likely accounts for about 40% of the variance in who will develop PTSD according to twin studies.
The impact of the environment also plays an important role and the higher rate of PTSD in violent neighborhoods is not likely the result of individuals with the same biological predisposition all coincidently living in the same unsafe neighborhood. Even if nothing traumatic happens personally to an individual, the impact of living in a constant state of fear (violent neighborhood, abusive home, warzone) is exhausting. The author recounts her personal experiences living in high crime neighborhoods and how it impacted her well-being. The constant fight-or-flight hormonal elevation creates a wide range of problems including a weakened immune system, heart disease, weight gain, sleep disturbances, prediabetes, fatigue, irritability, memory problems (the hippocampus can literally shrink), depression, and problems with impulse control. Scream addresses the interaction of genetic and environmental factors on PTSD and the importance of research in the area of epigenetics.
The author does research at ScareHouse, monitoring the reactions of visitors to the attraction and analyzing survey data from customers. Kerr and others used the data to create an optional experience at ScareHouse for visitors seeking a more one-on-one experience called “The Basement”. In The Basement visitors are exposed to an interrogation, being shut inside a coffin, and direct interaction with threatening characters. In an attempt to recreate the experience of solitary confinement, she experienced in an abandoned prison, Kerr added a segment to The Basement in which visitors travel in total darkness (including a bag over their head) along a rope of many textures. During the experience, they are confronted by actors who have numerous instruments (e.g. cold, hot, spiking, sharp) and who make loud sharp noises. The uncertainty created by this isolating experience leads visitors to frequently cite this as the most terrifying aspect of The Basement. There is a safe word and any person in The Basement can be taken out immediately if that is their choice.
Kerr’s analysis of the data led to her research on the positive aspects of fear and why individuals voluntarily engage in activities that lead to terror. She has used research and the results of her personal experiences to improve the ScareHouse. It is her goal to “… scare people in a way that’s going to make them feel good.” Kerr states that a major reason individuals seek out fear-inducing experiences is that they test one’s ability to overcome obstacles, “You are testing your own resilience. When you come out the other side of a scary movie or haunted house, you have accomplished something. You've tested your will. Even though we know nothing will hurt us, the self-esteem boost is real." Kerr’s book examines how fear can be fun and exciting - "When we know we're not really in any physical danger, we can enjoy the endorphins and the dopamine. That response is similar to being really excited and happy."
Fear reactions vary from person to person and are impacted by time and place and many other factors. There is, however, a universal biological reaction to fear and all animals have threat responses. The human threat response according to neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux involves a dual pathway process. In LeDoux’s theory, a potentially dangerous stimulus sends warning messages simultaneously along two pathways. The fast acting low road sends messages directly to the brain’s fear center in the amygdala leading immediately to the activation of a sympathetic nervous system. The slow acting high road is approximately one second slower because it takes a path that involves gathering information from other parts of the brain especially the prefrontal cortex which engages in evaluation and deliberation regarding the potential threat. The high road may for example, may combine visual information with stored memories to determine if the signal was a false alarm or if the threat reaction is warranted.
According to Kerr, the goal of haunted attractions or extreme adventures is to create scenarios that cause a fight-or-flight reaction for participants. The observable reactions to fear are shaped by learned reactions, individual genetic makeup, and culture. The fight-or-flight reaction is automatic, but research shows that much of what is feared is learned. Kerr addresses how research into fear began with Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner. Fear reactions are also in part cultural and Kerr explores cross-cultural responses to fear. In individualistic cultures typically progress through the attraction in single file and when startled act in a manner suggesting they are out to save themselves by running and throwing their arms out or to their chest. Japanese haunted house visitors, as well as those in other collectivist cultures, move through the attraction slowly as part of semi-circular clusters. When startled by an actor or event these individuals crowd together, emit a soft scream, and crouch lower to the ground.
There are also likely stimuli to which we are “hardwired” to fear. One phenomenon that causes fear reactions is a failure in the prediction system. When predictions do not match up with reality the resulting uncertainty creates fear. For example, if we mistakenly think there is one more stair left as we are going down to the basement the result is disorientation and potentially fear. In addition, the startle reaction triggers a threat response to rapidly occurring or unexpected stimuli (a flash of light) or anything that causes pain. This is why haunted attractions utilize startling noises, fast-moving props, and unexpected visual, olfactory, or tactile effects to create fear in visitors. Kerr uses startling smells to trigger fear, “Smell is such a powerful trigger for memories, if you catch a whiff of gasoline, something associated with being negative, instantly that has you thinking about a chainsaw-wielding maniac."
Research has not shown definitively that humans have an evolved fear of specific animals or stimuli but data from fMRI studies indicate that these are likely. For example, the amygdala reacts if individuals are shown pictures of upside down triangles or the whites of the eyes and researchers hypothesize that even the brief flash up upside down triangles triggers memories of the sharp teeth of predators (think shark teeth). The activation of the amygdala to the exposure to the whites of the eyes may explain why dolls or animatronics’ with wide-open eyes are used in haunted attractions. There are also certain images (e.g. snakes) that generate a threat reaction even if they are presented so quickly that the frontal lobes cannot consciously register having seen them. However, research also shows that individuals can rapidly identify modern threats such as gun and needles. It may be that the evolved fear response occurs as a reaction to threatening characteristics and not specific threatening stimuli. Humans tend to recognize threats based on relevance more than evolutionary threats. If a person believes they are more likely to be shot by a gun than bitten by a snake then they will recognize guns faster.
The author’s quest to understand the wide range of experiences related to fear led her to several visits to the now closed Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia which was famous for its use of solitary confinement. The prison is now used as a museum and haunted attraction but much of the facility is in a dangerous state of disrepair and not open to the public. The author chooses to spend the night alone in a windowless dark underground cell and then later returns with a ghost-hunting team looking for paranormal activity. She experiences firsthand the well documented negative consequences of solitary confinement. From Pavlov to Zimbardo this book is an adventure into the biological, psychological, and cultural factors that contribute to both the positive and negative aspects of fear. Be certain to read the footnotes for the author’s informative and often hilarious asides. Her footnotes also direct the reader to specific books and researchers for specific high-interest topics presented in the text. An added bonus is that the book itself glows in the dark!
Other Related Resources
Author Margee Kerr’s website provides information about her research, teaching, and work in the haunted house industry. The site also includes photos and blog postings by the author during her research. She has an interesting post titled, Why We Love Serial Killers that explains the public fascination have for scary television shows and films about such horrific killings.
The website for the haunted house in Pittsburgh that includes photos, videos, and behind the scenes stories including the haunted history of the building that houses the attraction.
Things That Go Bump In The Lab: Halloween And The Science Of Fear
NPR story from the Hidden Brain series discussing why individuals love haunted houses featuring the author Margee Kerr from October of 2015.
Karen Thompson Walker’s TED Talk - What Fear Can Teach Us
Author Karen Thompson Walker examines the connection between fear and the imagination and how fear can be channeled for positive uses.
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Vilayanur S. Ramachandran
John B. Watson
Autonomic Nervous System (Parasympathetic and Sympathetic)
Anxiety Disorders Treatment
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Collectivist v. Individualist Culture
Deep Brain Stimulation
Evolution and Fear
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)
Galvanic Skin Response Device (GSR)
Low and High Roads to Fear
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI)
Stanford Prison Experiment
Terror Management Theory
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)