The Science of Fear: Sociologist Margee Kerr Knows What Scares You!

Science of Fear: Margee Kerr

We interview Margee Kerr, PhD, author of “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear”!

Margee Kerr

“It’s not about terrorizing people,” says Sociologist Margee Kerr, “It’s about designing and creating scary and entertaining experiences that leave people feeling great.” Kerr is referring to her previous work with ScareHouse in Pittsburgh where she designed attractions based on her scientific research and psychological experiments related to her dissertation on fear and risk perception. Since earning her doctorate, she has moved on to consulting at other attractions.

After earning her BA at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, Kerr completed her PhD in Sociology from the designated “Zombie Capital of the World” at the University of Pittsburgh. She spent the next six years studying health disparities for the VA Hospital’s Health Equity Research and Promotion Center. Her research focused on how the mind and body respond to extraordinary situations.

As a part-time adventurer, she has also traveled around the world using herself as a research subject in the study of how we as humans experience and process the emotion we call fear, challenging the 168 foot high EdgeWalk at the CN Tower in Toronto and hiking alone through Aokigahara Forest (also known as Suicide Forest) in Japan. The results of her research and experience can be found in her book, “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.”

“What I experienced in Suicide Forest was really intense,” she admits. “People don’t often think about their mortality, but when they do it can really change their lives. I ended up feeling more thankful for everybody and more connected and that life was more valuable. I was left with the feeling that living in the present is critically important, and that I can’t waste any time on this earth.”

Kerr explains that when we confront the emotion of fear that two different things happen simultaneously. “There is a difference between what the body is doing and what the mind makes of the situation.”

“The body is just amazing in how well it is evolved to take care of us,” she elaborates. “The body produces adrenaline and norepinephrine which gets our system in ‘Go Mode,’ and this works to metabolize available sugars and get that to our muscles. Meanwhile, the brain is trying to gather as much information as possible to inform the experience.”

“When we get scared we start sweating as our body attempts to modulate temperature. There is increased respiratory, flared nostrils, our pupils dilate, endorphins are released to block pain and dopamine and serotonin are released to help the brain function better.”

“From a layman’s perspective, when people are scared they revert back to their animal state,” she explains. “They are totally in the present. It actually has a lot in common with meditation. Worries about grades, money and the future all melt away. Being scared is like hitting the emotional reset button.”

Margee Kerr Quote

Of the five senses, Kerr ranks hearing the highest when it comes to generating fear. “Startling sound from an unknown direction causes an immediate physical reaction.” Secondly, Kerr believes sight, especially startling lights, can create immediate terror. “Strobing lights induce a feeling of depersonalization like an out of body experience.”

Surprisingly, touch doesn’t rank nearly as highly as a motivator of fear according to Kerr, so I asked for her opinion on the trend of “extreme haunted attractions” sweeping the country.  “Touching can be effective when it’s done well and the actors are well trained on how and where to make contact. Terror behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary does touching well. Only certain actors are permitted to touch guests and they are limited to designated areas. It’s not a free-for-all.”

Margee Kerr

“I’ve never actually talked to Russ McKamey,” says Kerr speaking of the now infamous McKamey Manor in San Diego, CA where guests are said to be put through 4 to 8 hours of grueling torture and given a ‘safe word’ to use if they need to escape the carnage. “so I don’t know the truth from the myth regarding McKamey Manor, but I have heard that a lot of it is a PR stunt and the details you hear and images you see aren’t from real customers or from the actual experience, but I can’t speak to whether that’s true or not.”

“What I do know is that from a scientific point of view,” she continues, “when you deny people’s ability to actually, legitimately leave a situation, you can do real harm. I’ve heard of situations in extreme haunts where someone says, ‘It doesn’t matter if you say the safe word, you’re not getting out, we’re going to do this to you whether you like it or not.’ To me that’s not healthy. That’s a recipe for trauma.”

Kerr’s book, “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear” opens with a quote by Irish statesmen and philosopher, Edmund Burke, that reads, “Terror is a passion that always produces delight when it does not press too close.” Burke’s 18th century wisdom mirrors Kerr’s scientific theory that fear can be a vehicle to a state of euphoria, and the act of facing our fears and defeating them can lead to feelings of significant accomplishment.

“When we’re scared, our thinking brain just shuts down and we can feel totally in our body, invigorated and alive in the here and now.”

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