Study of haunted house visitors reveals how our bodies respond to threat in real-world scenarios

By Emma Young

It’s tricky to investigate fear. An ethics panel would frown on shooting at people (even with pellet guns), or exposing them to simulated suffocation — or drowning. Though we know that scary situations trigger physiological arousal so that we can fight or flee, ethical and practical concerns have made it hard to get at just how that plays out in the real world. Enter a team from the California Institute of Technology, who left the lab in favour of an immersive scary prison attraction in nearby Orange County.

Each of the 17 rooms of the experience feature different threats. These include suffocation, moving floors, being blindfolded in front of a firing squad (armed with pellet guns) and electric shocks. As Sarah M. Tashjian and her colleagues note in their paper in Psychological Science, “Many threats were more threatening and/or pain inducing than is ethically allowed in campus laboratory in the United States.” The participants were 156 customers, who were recruited after paying for their entry and being assigned to a guided group of 8-10 people.

After reporting on how many friends vs strangers were in their group, they completed a questionnaire that asked, among other things, about how much fear they were feeling, and expected to feel once inside. Next, they were fitted with a wrist-worn wireless sensor that monitored their skin conductance, which indicated how much they were sweating (more sweating indicates greater physiological arousal). Then off they went for a half-hour tour through “Perpetuum Penitentiary”, home to murderers and “vile and sadistic engineers” set on treating “the evils of humanity”… At the end, they reported on how much fear they’d actually felt.

The fear questionnaires produced some interesting results. Women reported expecting to feel more fear inside than men did, and also afterwards reported having felt more fear. Overall, though, both genders expected to feel more fear than they actually felt. The team also found that people who reported feeling more scared inside had experienced more frequent skin conductance “bursts”. This suggests that how scary you find an experience is a feature of the number of arousal “spikes” you experience. The team also notes that, perhaps unsurprisingly, unexpected sudden scares triggered bigger leaps in arousal than scares that the participants could anticipate.

One of the aims of the study was also to explore how the presence of friends and strangers influences the fear response. After all, when we face a threat in the real world, we’re often in the company of at least one other person. But the evidence in this area has been conflicting — some research suggests that the presence of friends buffers us from the effects of unpleasant experiences, while other studies have found that we “catch” more fear from friends than strangers.

The team found that people who went through Perpetuum Penitentiary with relatively more friends than strangers had higher background-level arousal throughout the experience. This seems to fit with the idea of emotion contagion, not social buffering. However, the team’s own data showed that more frequent arousal spikes — not higher background arousal — was linked to feeling more scared. Physiological arousal is associated not just with fear, though, but excitement. Perhaps the presence of more friends vs strangers boosted background excitement (rather than fear). But as the participants didn’t report on excitement levels, this is an open question.

There are a few other limitations to the study. One: the participants had all chosen to attend the attraction, no doubt because they expected to enjoy it. Other people might not respond in the same way. Also, Perpetuum Penitentiary was “safe scary”; the visitors knew they weren’t really going to be shot or drowned, and recreational horror experiences do need to hit a fear sweet spot between fear and fun to be enjoyable. So there are a few gaps between an experience like this and a real life scary situation.

Still, given all the obstacles to researching fear in the lab, and the scarcity of good data on how we react to scary situations — especially when other people are around — this is really interesting work. It “provides an important proof of concept and guide for field experiments to probe contributors to threat psychology,” the team writes — and it’s hard to argue with that.

Physiological Responses to a Haunted-House Threat Experience: Distinct Tonic and Phasic Effects

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest