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9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Haunted Houses

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Margee Kerr leads a unique double life. By day, she teaches sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. By night, she works for ScareHouse, a renowned haunted house in Pittsburgh, where she analyzes data from customers and employees to make the attractions as terrifying as possible.

Kerr’s new book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear explores how fear works in our bodies and societies, and why many of us intentionally seek it out—especially at this time of year. We interviewed her and several other professionals working at haunted house attractions to find out more about how these places work, and why we love them like we do.

1. FEAR IS SUBJECT TO TRENDS.

Just like Halloween costumes, haunted house characters cycle in and out of popularity. Since 2008, Kerr has been asking ScareHouse visitors to rate which types of characters they find most frightening, whether it’s zombies, ghosts, witches, demons, serial killers, or other nightmares stalking the house's halls.

Kerr says that when she first started the interviews she saw a rising fear of zombies, a trend that has yet to entirely fade. But the characters scoring the highest on questionnaires this season are ones that seem plucked from recent American Horror Story storylines: circus sideshow oddities dripping with nostalgia, face-paint, and worse.

Kerr says movie serial killers like Jason and Freddy are still popular, even with kids who were born long after the franchises got their start. Other perennial favorites include creepy kids and creepy dolls. (Although people are only scared of porcelain dolls, Kerr notes, never stuffed animals or Raggedy Ann types. She blames that on the uncanny valley effect.) Ghosts, Kerr says, never seem to get to the very top of the rankings.

Amy Hollaman, Creative Director at Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary, says they’ve found that their scariest characters are the ones people can’t quite interpret. “We have a kind of cult that has taken over a ‘haunted machine shop,'" she explains. "They all have shaved heads, workers uniforms, and the same tattoo. It’s not a character that everyone is familiar with, so people are trying to constantly assess it—is this threatening? Can I trust this? We find that people think that’s very scary."

2. PROGRESSION IS KEY.

Well-designed haunted houses will take into account the entire flow of the experience, much like a symphony—or even just a good workout.

Several haunted house experts noted the importance of starting out strong. Hollaman says they used to have a slower warm-up sequence at the start of their experience, but visitors didn’t remember it. Today, they go straight for the high intensity, high-startle scares and then get further into the story. 

Ben Armstrong, co-owner of Netherworld Haunted House in Atlanta, Georgia, agrees: “You always want to hit them hard at the beginning and hard at the end."

Kerr confirms that starting out with high intensity is important. At ScareHouse, she says, the initial attractions are designed to get your body in a state of high arousal. They “activate the threat response and get the chemicals flowing,” she notes. “Startle scares”—think a zombie jumping out from the corner—accomplish this effectively. The startle response is hard to shut off, Kerr says, and it gets you into high-alert mode.

ScareHouse, like other haunted houses, employs a series of peaks and valleys as visitors wander through the attraction. Their final room ends on a comedic note, one that tries to leave visitors “laughing, pumped-up, and excited.” There's also a cool-down at the end, where visitors check out their belongings, and staff ask how they’re doing.  But Kerr notes that not all haunted houses pay attention to the winding-down part of experience. The ones that do tend to be more business-oriented—they’re concerned about the liability issues of sending terrified people off into the night. 

3. SOME OF THE CHEAPEST TRICKS ARE THE MOST EFFECTIVE.

“There are a lot of old-school hack tricks that haunters discovered and now science is confirming,” Kerr says.

Many of these have to do with altering visitors’ sense of space and time. Strobe lights induce what Kerr calls "a feeling of depersonalization" by messing with our proprioception—our sense of our own bodies and movement—and our ability to locate ourselves visually from one moment to the next. Blackout rooms also interfere with our ability to orient ourselves, which triggers a fear response.

Other tricks involve subtle movements. At ScareHouse, some of the walls are on springs and move when you lean against them—not enough to make visitors fall and hurt themselves, Kerr says, but enough to make you question what just happened. Golf balls wedged tightly underneath the floors are another classic trick, since they make the ground move just enough to be alarming. "If you put the golf balls really close together in a very tight space and then put a board on top of it (also secured), so there is only about a half an inch worth of movement, it creates just enough disorientation to put you off balance (and set up you for the next scare), but not enough to actually make you fall," Kerr explains.

Still, startles remain one of the most effective tools. “Startles might be cheap, but they’re required to keep that high level of arousal,” Kerr says. “You can have great sets, but you need to have these fundamental things in your pocket to create that feeling of chaos. Otherwise you’re just walking through really cool sets.”

4. DON’T GET TOO COMFORTABLE.

“I always look for ways to establish a pattern or rhythm, Elizabeth Harper, an LA-based lighting designer who’s worked on several horror-themed attractions, says. “If you subvert the pattern, the audience has a moment of relief where they feel like they've escaped unscathed—and that's your opportunity to really scare them.”

It's a pattern that's often used in horror movies. “The killer's theme music will prime you to get scared," she explains. "Then one time it turns out to be something normal—it was only the wind or a cat ... you can bet that right after that moment of relief they're going to unleash something terrifying.”

Hollaman uses similar tactics in what she calls her “scareography”—the choreography of a scare. “It’s a sequence of steps, like with a dance move,” she explains, and one that incorporates both physical movements and dialogue. The principles of Hollaman’s scareography includes first scanning the customer and getting a read on their body language, which can determine the sequence or the tempo of what happens next. The second step often involves a distraction, often with a prop.

“For instance, in the morgue, visitors see a rib cage slowly lifting up,” she explains. “While they’re turned and looking at that, it allows the actors to slowly creep out of their scare pockets and slide right to the middle of the group.” That’s when the real scare happens.

“We’re using the principles of redirection,” she notes. "The scare isn’t where you expect it to be.”

5. THAT SMELL MIGHT JUST BE ANIMAL URINE.

Entire companies are devoted to designing haunted house smellscapes, with the scent of rotting corpses a particularly popular choice.

ScareHouse has used a variety of scents, Kerr says, but this year there’s a boar’s urine smell in a haunt designed to look like a butcher room. “It’s awful, but in a way that isn’t completely repulsive,” Kerr says.

Finding the right balance between scary and just plain disgusting is important when it comes to smells. “Something like bad breath is just going to make people disengage and move away," Kerr says. "But there’s other smells that are weird and gross, yet that don’t take you out of the experience.” Boars’ urine seems to fit the bill, for some reason—perhaps because most of us have never encountered it before and don’t have a script for how to deal with it, Kerr says.

Harper, however, says she’s not a fan of using smell in a haunted house, and “not just because the smell gets in your clothes and hair if you're working all night.”  She says the unfamiliar smells can actually take people out of the moment. “Unlike sound or lights or actors, you can't hit someone with a smell and make it disappear, so it overstays its welcome. People start wondering how we did that, which is the least scary thought in the world.”

6. THE SCARES MAY CHANGE ACCORDING TO YOUR RESPONSE.

At ScareHouse, “if a group comes in that’s not jumping at all, the actors will abandon any dialogue and go right to startle scares,” Kerr says. In other words, plot goes out the window, while the basic physiological triggers come back into play.

On the other hand, if people who seem too scared, the actors will take it in a more comedic direction. Armstrong at Netherworld agrees: “If someone is too scared we train our actors to back off … We want them to have nightmares for a week, not the rest of their lives!”

According to general manager D. Brandon LeJeune, the goal at House of Torment in Austin is "to scare first and foremost, but when that doesn't work out, we fall back to entertaining. Groups are instructed before entering the attraction that if they are too scared to continue, they can inform a monster and they will be escorted out. This happens on a very regular basis.”

Hollaman, however, says her actors aren’t supposed to improv very much. They might have to make some of their scares shorter or longer, but basically need to stick to the script.

7. SIMPLE IS BETTER.

Not every scary setup works. Around 2009, ScareHouse created a haunted house built around a detailed universe with good soldiers fighting an evil overlord. Visitors were supposed to be able to choose sides, but people didn’t get it.

“The complexity of the story didn’t allow people to go into primal, no-thinking scare mode. That was a lesson in how simple is better—narrative thread good, narrative cobwebs bad,” Kerr says. Or as Harper puts it, “a little bit of narrative goes a long way."

8.  THEY PRODUCE A NATURAL HIGH.

Kerr says there can be surprising benefits to visiting a haunted house. For some, they induce a kind of natural high. “The adrenaline, the dopamine, the endorphins that course through your body—the scary material is just a trigger for that kind of response with some people,” Kerr says.

Others seem to enjoy haunted houses because they genuinely like scary material. “Some people have a positive response to a negative picture,” Kerr explains, “and there’s not necessarily a pathology behind that.” The reasons behind such responses are complex. “It could be because some people have linked scary stuff with the feel-good endorphins, so the negative image takes on a positive feeling.”

And some people, like Kerr herself, go to haunted houses as a way to enforce feelings of competency. Going through a set of thrilling experiences can be a safe way to challenge oneself and emerge feeling great. “It’s a confidence boost,” Kerr says. She actively seeks out safe-but-scary experiences on days when she’s feeling low.

9. THEY MAY GET US CLOSER TO OUR ANCESTORS.

Humans evolved in environments in which they were facing constant physical threat. For a lot of us, life is significantly more cushy now. That could mean we’re missing out on dangerous but potentially exhilarating experiences our ancestors were more familiar with, whether that’s running from a bear or fighting a battle.

“For many Americans, their emotional expressions on a day-to-day basis are very narrow,” Kerr says. “We’re not having many highs or lows. We’re living a more restricted emotional life. I think that’s why we go out to scary movies and haunted houses—we evolved to have this massive range of emotional experiences, and we still want them." In other words, haunted houses might just be a way to recapture the sense of thrill our foremothers and forefathers knew—but instead of ending up as a snack for a wild animal, we can go off laughing into the night. 

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14 Haunting Facts About the Winchester Mystery House

Despite the Winchester Mystery House's cheerful appearance, this massive California mansion's history is edged with tragedy, mystery ... and maybe some ghosts. Naturally, it has inspired a chilling horror movie, Winchester, which opens in theaters today. But before you go to the movie theater, wander through the curious past of one of America's most infamous homes.

1. THE WINCHESTER HOUSE IS NAMED FOR ITS MISTRESS.

Sarah Lockwood Winchester—the wife of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester, whose family created the Winchester rifle that was heralded as "the gun that won the west”—designed and oversaw the construction of the sprawling Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion that bears her name. Construction on the 24,000-square-foot home, which is located at 525 South Winchester Boulevard in San Jose, California, began in 1886.

2. MANY BELIEVE SARAH BUILT WINCHESTER HOUSE OUT OF FEAR.

Overcome with grief in the wake of her husband's death from tuberculosis in 1881, folklore states that Sarah sought out a spiritualist who could commune with the dead. While she was presumably looking for solace or closure, she was instead given a chilling warning.

Through the medium, William told his widow that their tragedies (the couple had only one child, a daughter named Annie, who died at six weeks old) were a result of the blood money the family had made off of the Winchester rifles. He warned that vengeful ghosts would seek her out. In order to protect herself, William said that Sarah must "build a home for [herself] and for the spirits who have fallen from this terrible weapon."

Sarah was advised to leave their home in New Haven, Connecticut, behind, and move west, where she was to build a grand home for the spirits. There was just one catch: construction on the house could never stop. "If you continue building, you will live,” the medium warned Sarah. “Stop and you will die."

3. THE HOUSE WAS UNDER CONSTANT CONSTRUCTION FOR 38 YEARS.

Sarah Winchester's bedroom, on the second floor of Winchester House
Sarah Winchester's bedroom

In 1886, Sarah purchased an eight-room farmhouse in San Jose, California, and began building. She employed a crew of carpenters, who split shifts so construction could go on day and night, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, for 38 years. The work only stopped on September 5, 1922, because the octogenarian mastermind behind the home died of heart failure in her sleep. It's said that upon hearing the news of Sarah's death, the carpenters quit so abruptly they left half-hammered nails protruding from walls.

4. THE HOUSE IS FULL OF ARCHITECTURAL ODDITIES.

Sarah issued many bizarre demands to her builders, including the building of trap doors, secret passages, a skylight in the floor, spider web windows, and staircases that led to nowhere. There are also doors that open to blank walls, and a dangerous door on the second floor that opens out into nothing—save for an alarming drop to the yard far below.

5. AN EARTHQUAKE ONCE RATTLED THE HOUSE AND TRAPPED SARAH.

In 1906, the great San Francisco Earthquake caused three floors of the then seven-story house to cave in. A 1900 postcard of the place shows a tower that was later toppled by the natural disaster. That tower—plus several other rooms destroyed in the disaster—were never rebuilt, but cordoned off. As for Sarah, she was safe but stuck in the Daisy Bedroom, named for the floral motif in its windows. She had to be dug out by her staff, as its entrance was blocked off by rubble.

6. THE HOUSE WAS DESIGNED LIKE A LABYRINTH.

Some say the labyrinth layout was meant to confuse the ghosts, allowing Sarah some peace and a means to escape them. She was the sole architect of this extraordinary home, and no master building plan has ever been uncovered. So Sarah may be the only person who ever truly knew all of its secrets. When movers were called in after her death, one lamented its labyrinthine design that includes many winding hallways. One mover told American Weekly the Winchester House was a place "where downstairs leads neither to the cellar nor upstairs to the roof."

7. SOME SAY THE SYMBOLS IN THE HOUSE POINT NOT TO GHOSTS, BUT FRANCIS BACON.

An alternate theory on the Winchester House's perplexing design declares that Sarah was creating a puzzle full of encryptions inspired by the work of English philosopher Francis Bacon. There's speculation that clues to the house's true meaning are hidden in the ballroom, the Shakespeare windows, and the iron gates. This theory suggests that Sarah was a member of a mystic society like the Rosicrucians, or a secret society like the Freemasons—or possibly both.

8. THERE ARE OTHER THEORIES, INCLUDING THAT SARAH WAS "CRAZY."

Others speculate Sarah was coping with her grief with a flurry of activity, or that she was simply "crazy." However, Winchester Mystery House historian Janan Boehme paints a happier picture, imagining that the continual renovations reminded Sarah of the good times when she and William built their New Haven home together.

"I think Sarah was trying to repeat that experience by doing something they both loved," Boehme told the Los Angeles Times. She also suspects that Sarah was just an ardent—albeit eccentric—philanthropist who used her family fortune to purposefully employ the San Jose community. "She had a social conscience and she did try to give back," Boehme offered, noting the hospital Sarah built in her husband's name. "This house, in itself, was her biggest social work of all."

9. ONCE IN WINCHESTER HOUSE, SARAH WAS RECLUSIVE, BUT NOT ALONE.

There is only one known photo of the widow Winchester, which was taken surreptitiously. Though she was reclusive, she was never alone. She had 18 servants, 18 gardeners, and the ever-present construction team working on the grounds. Every morning, Sarah met with the foreman to discuss the always-evolving building plans. And it's said that each night, she visited the Séance Room to speak with the spirits, who weighed in on plans for the house's unusual design.

10. THE HOUSE WAS AS OPULENT AS IT WAS ODD.

The home boasts 950 doors, 10,000 windows, 40 stairways, 52 skylights, 47 fireplaces, six kitchens, plus a trio of elevators, and once-groundbreaking elements like wool insulation, carbide gaslights, electricity, and an indoor shower, complete with a sewage drainage system.

11. NO ONE IS SURE HOW MANY ROOMS THE HOUSE HELD.

Following Sarah's death, Winchester House was converted into a tourist attraction. But when trying to get a room count, the new owners kept coming up with different numbers. After five years of renovations, they estimated the number of rooms to be about 160, which is the number most often quoted today.

12. SARAH HAD AN OBSESSION WITH THE NUMBER 13.

Among the secrets Sarah took to her grave was why she insisted that so many things relate to the number 13. The Winchester House has many 13-paned windows and 13-paneled ceilings, as well as 13-step stairways. Even her will had 13 parts, and she signed it 13 times. But the pièce de résistance might be the house's 13th bathroom, which contains 13 windows of its own.

13. IT’S A NATIONAL LANDMARK.

The Winchester Mystery House earned landmark status on August 7, 1974. The fascinating mansion is still owned by the family (families?) who purchased it from the Winchester estate in 1922 for $150,000—however, their identity is another Winchester House mystery. But thanks to them, tourists can now explore 110 of the 160-some rooms Sarah dreamed up. The Winchester Mystery House even boasts special tours on Halloween and Fridays the 13th.

14. IT’S REGULARLY CITED AS ONE OF THE MOST HAUNTED PLACES IN AMERICA.

To this day, Winchester House is a destination for believers who hope to have a paranormal encounter of their own. A popular spot for such activity is the corridors of the third floor, where tour guides have claimed to hear footsteps and disembodied voices whisper their names.

In a Reddit AMA, a Winchester House tour guide confirmed that the house’s third floor—only a portion of which is accessible during house tours—is definitely the spookiest part of the house, “because that's where the servants lived, so there's been a lot of reported activity there. Also, when you are on that floor you can never really hear any of the other tours, so you feel pretty isolated.”

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Fright Fest: The Science Behind Why We Love to Be Scared
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Every week of the year, in rural Summertown, Tennessee, not too far from Nashville, retired Navy man Russ McKamey terrorizes people. McKamey Manor is a haunted house, but it's nothing you'd send your kid to for Halloween. It's billed to interested parties as "live your own horror movie."

McKamey spends as much time talking people out of the haunt as he does allowing them to come in. "'You really don't want to do this'—that's my tagline," McKamey tells Mental Floss. With his gravel-throated voice and quickness to laugh, his professed love of Turner Classic Movies and musicals, it's hard to imagine this father of two dreaming up these horror shows. He combines what he says are mind control techniques from "MK Ultra"—a notorious CIA project—and general hypnosis techniques with harrowing, gruesome stunts to break people down physically and mentally. "You will hallucinate when you're here," he chuckles. "You will be putty in my hands."

Though McKamey keeps the full details of the haunt under wraps, he posts short movies on his website of participants in horrifying scenarios: A young woman pants and shivers in a tiny chamber, her face distorted by a plastic mouth guard that stretches her cheeks garishly apart. A person appears to be strangled by a boa constrictor. A young man lies bloody in a room of knives where a masked man eats raw intestines and comes at him with a drill.

McKamey insists "it's all smoke and mirrors" and "under control," and that no one is ever seriously injured other than "cuts, bruises, and strains." But, he says, the physical challenges and mental terror are real. He even keeps an EMT on hand. This is why his selection process is so rigorous: "After they contact me, I don't even take them seriously until they get a letter from their doctor saying they're mentally and physically cleared to participate."

He only does one haunt per week, limited to two people at a time—surely a disappointment to the more than 40,000 people who apply to visit every year. (For 19 years, McKamey Manor was located in San Diego, California; it's only been in Tennessee for four months.) If they pass the initial screening, he runs a criminal background check on them. The day of the haunt he does a drug screening of the participants, who then have to sign a 40-page legal waiver in which they agree to a laundry list of all the possible horrors that could happen to them and release McKamey and crew from any liability.

Participants start out in "Holly's Playhouse," where they undertake a series of physical challenges. If they make it through that potentially hours-long ordeal, McKamey drives them two hours to another location in Huntsville, Alabama, where, he says, "it gets very mental and very serious."

While the participants don't know explicitly which experiences will occur in any given haunt, they sign off on the possibility that any of them could, ranging from having to escape from a coffin buried under 12 feet of dirt to having a fingernail pulled out with a pair of pliers. (Yes, really, though it's very rare and only done at the request of the participants.) They have a safe word they can use at any time to stop the experience.

Because of all this preparation, McKamey insists that nobody who comes to his haunt is an unsuspecting victim: "You've got to jump through serious hoops to get here. You've got to really want to do this."

Every show is personalized to the people coming through. Participants give McKamey permission to contact family, friends, and coworkers to probe deep into their fears. "We go for the gut wrenching—what really scares somebody," McKamey says.

The "winner" of the haunt—anyone who makes it through to the end, which can take long as 10 hours—wins $1000.

In the nearly two decades that McKamey has been operating his house of horror, nobody has ever completed the haunt.

On September 30, Sean Morin, a former military paratrooper and "horror junkie," and his wife, Kinsey, who will graduate from the police academy on Halloween, were the chosen two that McKamey—with the help of his girlfriend, Holly, and several volunteer actors—deigned to terrorize. The Morins, of Rossville, Georgia, were determined that they would be the first ones to survive every horror at McKamey Manor and take home that $1000.

"I'm pretty confident in making it through," Kinsey told Mental Floss on the day of their haunt.

Sean was excited. "I like the thrill of being scared: the surprises, the jump scares, the whole atmosphere of being immersed in an alternate reality," he said. For him, the adrenaline release relieves stress, anxiety and clears his head: "It's an escape from the hoopla of everyday routines."

Sean and Kinsey aren't alone in their love of being scared. And while McKamey Manor may be the most extreme version of a haunted house around, it's far from the only one.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

THE NEUROCHEMISTRY OF FEAR

Taking pleasure in fear is actually quite normal, it turns out. According to Kate Brownlowe, neuropsychiatrist and section chief of neurobehavioral health in the department of neurology and psychology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, being afraid is essential to human survival. "On an evolutionary basis, people who had a good fear response to things that were dangerous were far more likely to survive in the wild," she tells Mental Floss.

When your brain senses a threat of danger, often before your conscious mind has even had time to process it, a little almond-shaped structure in each lobe of the brain called the amygdala sends out excitatory signals that trigger your sympathetic nervous system into a fight-or-flight response. Corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH), cortisol, and adrenaline surge into your blood, your heart rate increases, your pupils dilate, and you begin to sweat, creating a strong state of arousal, or alertness, to prepare you for action. New research has even recently identified neural pathways that process fear, involving the hippocampus, actively involved in memory, which may shed light on how to intervene upon trauma and PTSD.

However, once your brain has determined that you will not die from this threat, or that the threat is largely over, your frontal lobes take over. "The experience of your brain calming itself down is actually very pleasurable," Brownlowe says, which may be why people come back for more. The parasympathetic nervous system kicks into "rest-and-digest" mode, which releases the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine. There's also psychological benefit—surviving a scare can "reset the thermostat for people" so that things which had seemed intimidating may be easier to deal with in the future. "It's easier for the frontal lobe to calm down the fear response because you already have that belief: that expectation that you're going to be OK," Brownlowe says.

Belief may play a big part in how scared we get, in fact. "There's no fear without belief," Craig April, Ph.D., therapist and founder of the April Center for Anxiety Attack Management in Los Angeles, tells Mental Floss. In his treatment of people with anxiety disorders, April devotes much of the work to challenging people's beliefs about what evokes their fear, and helping them change those beliefs through cognitive behavioral therapy.

"Life is so uncertain, and uncertainty always brings some measure of fear," he says. He believes that people may be drawn to horror and fear-inducing events as a way of trying to gain mastery over that which scares us in our own lives: "When going to a haunted house or movie, our brains have a sense that this is a controlled environment, so even though there's a lot of uncertainty, if we faced those fears, it can be empowering."

Unless, of course, you have damage to your amygdala, in which case it is possible for your fear center to go down like a power line in a storm. In one rare case documented in 2010, a woman with lesions on her amygdala, identified only as "SM," lost her ability to feel fear. She might be McKamey Manor's ideal candidate, for when researchers at the University of Iowa exposed her to live snakes and spiders (to which SM expressed a lifelong hatred), took her on a haunted tour of Waverly Hills Sanatorium, and showed her a series of horror films, she remained unmoved and unafraid. She was actually drawn to the most poisonous of the snakes and spiders. Moreover, she was also still able to "exhibit other basic emotions and experience the respective feelings."

THE CONNECTION BETWEEN HORROR AND IMAGINATION

While fear is a deeply intrinsic part of every mammal's ability to stay alive, horror may be a strictly human phenomenon, as McKamey Manor makes sure to play upon. In a 2014 paper published in the journal Social Research, philosopher and author of the book On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, Stephen Asma looks to horror master H.P. Lovecraft to delineate the difference between horror and fear. "Lovecraft argues, in his 1927 Supernatural Horror in Literature, that good horror evokes a unique subjective emotion, which he refers to as ‘cosmic fear,'" Asma writes. "There is something in the horror experience, Lovecraft claims, that resonates a deep instinctual awe of the unknown."

Most mammals experience fear in relationship to "specific enemies," he says, namely other creatures and forces that can kill them. But in humans, with our comparatively larger neocortexes, "we can take our memories, ideas, goals, and emotions offline, so to speak, and entertain them in a parallel universe of mental space." In other words, our ability to imagine increases our ability to feel horror.

This might explain why researchers from Indiana University Media School found that the brains and emotions of people who play horror games like Resident Evil or Amnesia: The Dark Descent can't distinguish between "fake" fear and real fear. In keeping with April's theory, the researchers suggest that people seek out fear in controlled experiences, such as playing video games. When you know an experience can't harm you, there's a temporary rush, and then a period of relief when the thrill is over. While the experience itself might be fake, the fear is real.

And not only is it real in your mind, it's real in your blood. If you've ever described your experience of a scary movie as "bloodcurdling," you are more correct than you know. The term dates back to medieval times and is based on the concept that fear or horror would ‘run the blood cold' or ‘curdle' blood," according to a 2015 study out of Leiden University Medical Centre in Germany, published in the medical journal BMJ.

Researchers set out to test the truth of this by studying the effects of fear on markers of blood coagulation in participants watching movies. The researchers took blood samples before and after the subjects watched two 90-minute movies, one educational and the other horror. They also had participants answer a questionnaire to determine if they were scared by the horror movie. They found that coagulant factor VIII levels before and after watching the horror movies were higher than for the educational movie.

Researchers from the Aarhus University School of Communication and Culture in Denmark who presented at the 29th Human Behavior and Evolution Society conference in 2017 suggest that there's an evolutionary explanation for these responses, in that "horror may be analyzed as a simulation technology that allows users to attain adaptive experience with perceived threat and negative emotion in a safe environment," they write.

GORE, DISGUST, AND RISK

Not all fear is created equal, of course. McKamey Manor capitalizes on blood and gore—no matter how fake—as a big sell to horror junkies. Gore is a key component of contemporary horror movies, ranging from the grotesque assaults of the Nightmare on Elm Street films featuring the terrifying Freddy Krueger to the popular guts-and-gore Saw slasher films of today.

While it might seem unlikely for the average person to take pleasure in viscera and violence, a 2014 study in the Journal of Communication found that movies and shows with gory and disgusting scenes have a higher likelihood of holding an audience's attention than those without. Researchers at University of Central Florida exposed 120 participants to images that fell into three categories of disgust: body envelope violations (a "core disgust," in which an individual's skin has been penetrated or harmed in such a way that leads to injury or death); body products (another core disgust, dealing with fluids and wastes produced by a body, such as vomit and feces); and sociomoral disgust (which occurs when watching people engaged in hate speech or sexual abuse).

When the researchers introduced stimuli via TV or movies that elicited one of these forms of disgust, it turned on the sympathetic nervous system, creating a state of readiness much like that involved in fight-or-flight. The core disgusts are especially effective at flipping the switch on.

The authors theorize that there is an evolutionary bias toward disgust, because it "would better equip humans to avoid harmful substances. Disgust-related contaminants are often tied to survival opportunities like food and sex, providing even more motivation for one to correctly identify potential threats."

On a primal level, gore tells the animal part of our brains that there is something serious that requires our attention.

With all this evidence for the functions of fear, why do some people actively seek out being afraid while others do not? According to Frank Farley, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, and the former president of the American Psychological Association, tolerance or avoidance of fear-inducing events is shaped by "a recipe of ingredients" that includes brain processes, genetics, social experiences and influences, childhood upbringing, and the culture or community in which a person lives.

Farley has spent 40 years identifying what he calls "T Type" personalities (T is for "thrill"). All of us exist on a spectrum of "sensation seeking," a well-understood psychological principle, he tells Mental Floss. Those with high sensation–seeking needs are your horror junkies and thrill seekers: "T types thrive in the realm of uncertainty." These are the people who climb Mount Everest, despite high risk of death. Who like to throw themselves out of planes or slackline over canyons. While these types undertake a high degree of personal risk, Farley credits them with being highly "inventive, creative and innovative."

"You're never going to do great creative things in this world unless you're a risk taker," he says. These are Big T types, which he calls "the change agents, adventurers, pushing the envelope all the time."

On the other end of the spectrum are the Small T types—those of us who are risk averse or avoidant—who are "holding onto the handrails of life."

The people who fly from all over the country to partake in McKamey Manor's horrors are likely Big T types.

HAUNT, INTERRUPTED

After nearly two decades, McKamey still finds himself fascinated by people's draw to his haunt. The local community thinks of him as "evil," he says—and he claims to have gotten death threats. "People think in order to do this I must be some psychopath. If you actually knew me, you just say, 'You're actually just a good guy.'"

This good guy managed to absolutely terrify former paratrooper Sean and cop-to-be Kinsey. Despite their confidence before crossing the threshold of McKamey Manor, the couple did not make it through the haunt. In fact, they only held up through one entire stunt out of hundreds.

While McKamey won't disclose the full details of the experience that did them in, he describes it as a "height stunt." Sean and Kinsey were blindfolded, their ears were covered with noise-canceling headphones, and their mouths were plugged with an uncomfortable plastic mouth guard. For Sean, the deprivation of his senses combined with the uncertainty of how far he might fall added up to a complete loss of control. "There was no way I was going to be able to gain control of myself with my senses being taken away," Sean says.

Of the experience, McKamey says, "Physically it's not that tough, but your mind will always be your worst enemy."

There were also points at which Sean was scared he would have to stop "for an emergency reason, like water going into my lungs." (Water is a constant in almost all the experiences for its power to wear down one's mental and physical resources, McKamey says.)

During the transition between the height stunt and the next one, Sean ran into a tree with such force, he nearly knocked himself out. It was at that point that he felt he couldn't go on.

"I was disappointed in myself," Sean admits.

He calls McKamey Manor a "a great experience"—and he wants to do it again. Undaunted by their failure, he and Kinsey plan to return in the future to try to survive their fears.

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