Uncovering The Science Of Fear
PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – If the mysterious and macabre freaks you out – if ghost stories make you cringe – you’re probably glad Halloween is just about over.
Or maybe you look forward to all the monsters and mayhem. Well, you can thank those who specialize in finding out what really frightens us.
At Terror Town in the Strip, lots of people lined up just to be scared out of their minds. Haunted attractions in Pittsburgh make big business out of making people scream, jump and even run away in tears.
Here’s how local fear experts get inside your head:
It’s human nature to be fearful – our most basic survival instinct, triggered by what we perceive as dangerous or threatening.
The most common: spiders, flying, heights, public speaking and death.
Haunted houses play on the fear of uncertainty – what’s lurking in the darkness and is it real or paranormal?
“Everybody has a phobia,” President of Terror Town Sam Firman said. “I think everyone’s afraid of something whether they admit it or not.”
Firman’s staff conducts methodical exit interviews with customers.
“What scared them the most, what room scared them the most, what actors,” he said. “That seems to work well for us. That way we can make changes accordingly, even throughout the season.”
What was scary decades ago doesn’t work these days. And new research reveals some unusual triggers.
“I think clowns always scare people, and people have a phobia about little kids and the fact that little kids are supposed to be innocent and when they become demonic – it really scares people,” Firman said.
Scarehouse’s Scott Simmons says those more bizarre characters are now part of pop culture horror.
“And things like the bunny with the ax or the angry clown or creepy Christmas elf,” he says. “They scare you, but then you kind of laugh because they’re so kind of twisted and funny and weird.”
His haunt is also a kind of laboratory.
Margie Kerr is the staff sociologist at Scarehouse.
“When we get scared, we release all the endorphins and adrenaline and endorphins, and so we’re actually getting a nice biological payoff,” she says. “It’s a natural high.”
And that creepy kid dynamic – it’s big there, too.
“Which is really interesting,” Kerr said. “Anybody who said something about creepy children or screaming children who looked weird, I notice that pattern a lot and that seems to be a hot trend right now.”
But sometimes those fears, both old and new, become so paralyzing that people seed profession help.
Hypnotherapists like Dr. Bill Stiles say they can reprogram that part of the brain.
KDKA’s Kym Gable: “What are some of the most common things that people come to you for.”
“Things like spiders,” Stiles says are some of the more common things people see him for. “They’re little creatures, they’re not going to hurt you. But it is one of the number one fears around here.”
He too says the horror industry has become more sophisticated, evoking the same biological response that a lot of other people actually enjoy.
“Well, the threat is sudden and the threat is visual,” he says. “That increases the flow of all that adrenaline and it feels good.”
What happens with repeated exposure to those things in media, film and pop culture?
“The expanded mind does not return to its former state,” Stiles says. “So you’re collecting every movie, every book, every frightful thing you’ve seen.”
So it really is all in your head. And for thrill-seekers and fear-junkies, that’s just fine.
Pittsburgh has some of the most highly-rated haunted attractions in the country, making it a city that takes scaring you very seriously.