TEA Connect Blog

11 November 2021

They Braved the Psychology of Scare

On Wednesday, October 27th, the TEA Western Division hosted a pre-Halloween event. It was one where the attendees were enthralled, captivated, and one would wager, very happy. Why? Because they braved “The Psychology of Scare.” Read on to learn why braving any kind of scare could potentially do you some good. 

Prior to (and during) the event, the question posed to the panelists and attendees was essentially, “What is it about fear that keeps us coming back for more?”

This panel of expert scare, experience and fear-mongers was moderated by Michael Genova, Western Division Board Member and the Director of Entertainment Engineering & Design at the UNLV. The panel consisted of three well-appointed experts: 


Dr. Margee Kerr, PhD, a sociologist with the Department of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, and researcher who has done some extensive studies of “fear attractions” around the world. She is the author of the book “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.” 

Rick West is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Midsummer Scream. His annual event that attracts up to fifty-thousand people, will celebrate its fifth anniversary in 2022, and is similar to other cos-play events (such as Comicon), but with a Halloween and Horror twist. 

And finally, Jon Braver, the Creator of “Delusion” (a seasonal, interactive, immersive, theatrical experience), and Director of Immersive Entertainment at Thirteenth Floor Entertainment Group. Delusion offers what Jon calls authentic fantasy, horror or other types of story-based experiences for guests, typically located in actual historic mansions or similar locations (rather than on sets or sound stages) and are staffed by talented actors who engage and interact with the guests to follow a specific story. 

Delusion - Reaper's Remorse

The discussion began with the moderator asking about the motivations behind why people attend Halloween Events. Rick West of Midsummer Scream described their attendees as everything from families with small children (because of their kids’ activities), to teens, all the way to folks in their middle-ages and up! He said they offer so many different things to appeal to different people, that the motivations are very diverse. Their guests are global and come from all over the world, because this kind of interest isn’t just an American thing. Some are hardcore Halloween fans, some are strictly into the Horror genre. Some come just for the scare, spending the entire time in the Hallowed Shadows (where the haunts are located). Others come just for the shopping… and still others come for the entertainment or just because there is something for everyone there. 

At Delusion, Jon Braver brought his ten-plus years of experience in the film business and brought it all into the live theatre space… and got swept up into the idea of creating a live adventure. He says, “what guests have come to expect (and what they want more of) at Delusion, is in short, cinematic qualities in a live theatrical experience. They expect to see professional stunt people, professional actors (some of the best you’ll see in the immersive space), and a story that takes place inside a “real” set, like a 140-year-old mansion, or an abandoned church. They also expect to be a part of a story…that’s what this whole thing is all about – you, living inside of this horror, or fantasy adventure, or other type of experience.” What they found when they launched the pilot, was that there was nothing like it in LA. There was an experience called “Sleep No More” on the East Coast, but this was it for LA. Once it “hit,” and Jon was able to observe the audience go through and find connection with the actors and the story, and how it lingered in their minds, and showed on their faces – then he knew this was the path they needed to take. 

At this point, Moderator, Michael Genova transitioned to Dr. Kerr and was specifically interested in an entry in her book about the Basement 2.0. He wanted more details about it, and what she learned and took away from that entire experience. 

Dr. Kerr described how she and her colleague Greg Siegle, PhD (University of Pittsburgh, Director of Cognitive Affective Neuroscience) worked together for two years on an experiment. They set up a mobile lab that was in the basement of The Basement Attraction (thus Basement 2.0). The goal was to study the effects of fear in humans, on their psyche/emotions and on their bodies. 

The recruitment for the study was from guests who were already in line for the attraction, because they wanted to be sure people wanted to be there, that they had already spent money expecting a highly intense, extreme, haunted attraction. They were able to collect physiological data… things like heart rate and skin conductance while people went through. They also had a mobile EEG to measure people’s brainwave activity before and after they went through attraction. Participants were also surveyed before and after – how they were feeling, what their expectations were (would it be scary, intense, fearful, etc.), as well as what kinds of other thrilling activities (like roller coasters) they enjoy. In the second year of the project, they used a Need for Affect Scale which measures people’s overall need to have very emotional experiences (good or bad). 

So, the researchers had some really great pre/post data: what people were feeling/thinking beforehand, and how it changed afterwards. What they found was that mood really improved from pre to post, significantly in both years the experiment was conducted. Mood ratings increased! Ratings of frustration/stress/tired/anxious, etc. all went down afterward. So, the negative affective states went down after doing something scary. 

Delusion - Will Shavers

Dr. Kerr acknowledged that it may seem obvious for people to feel better after getting all of their stresses out through screaming and whatnot, and that does play a role. But among several Affective Scientists the idea that doing something scary can actually decrease anxiety, is not the most researched or popular finding. But they found those positive changes related to those who felt like they actually challenged themselves, and that their improvement was more significant. They found the scarier the better. They also found positive changes related to changes in brainwave activity. So, after going through the attraction, their global brainwave activity went down (the scientists measured the participant’s activity before and afterward, while doing various tasks like looking at pictures, doing various calculations, and thinking about something negative), and they found that their reactivity to those tasks went down. This suggests a kind of “turning down” or muting of inner dialogue, that leads to rumination, or getting caught up in your own head, which is associated with feeling better. It showed people were able to be truly in the present moment, and it’s a more positive feeling! 

These findings were very exciting! They collected pilot data and would like to use this information to translate the findings into clinical applications for exposure therapy protocols – helping people confront fears and phobias that impact their lives in significant ways. 

Dr. Kerr also acknowledged that when they speak to people in the themed entertainment and Fright or Scare industries, these professionals already know all of this, because they see the results regularly. They were thrilled to now have some solid data to underscore the outcomes people were already observing. 

Michael Genova agreed and brought up the topic of a term he’d seen in Dr. Kerr’s book about “extreme haunts,” where barriers were removed, and participants were being touched or dragged away. He was curious whether this sort of experience was a new thing and was in more demand these days. Dr. Kerr stated that the definition of “extreme” has changed over the years. Certainly, the vocabulary has become more refined more recently to include “interactive” and “immersive” and other words to connote the guests participation, versus an “extreme” event that would require some kind of informed consent and a waiver acknowledging that guests know they will be put into uncomfortable situations. There has been a growing awareness distinguishing these varying types of events. She and the other panelists all agreed that the needle has moved over the years as to what is being done, or acceptable. 

Jon Braver of Delusion concurred. He acknowledged the wide spectrum of unrequited need, from extreme to very passive. He talked about how the industry has evolved to meet all the needs, and finds that wonderful, because there is a market for all of it. He qualified that by saying he isn’t surprised by anything anymore, and if it isn’t murder, he is okay with it being offered, if done in the right way. 

Braver explained that with Delusion, it’s very hands-on. When they say “play your part,” it means that guests are a part of the story. So, they are being spoken to by the actors, and are expected to perform certain actions to move the story along. They’re being captured and taken away to other places (all safely), and into other side quests. So, that need for interaction being met by Delusion. 

Midsummer Scream Mansion Panel

Rick West from Midsummer Scream added that, in terms of vocabulary, he sees these things as extreme “events,” and not necessarily extreme haunts. He believes these extreme events have ramped up a lot within the last fifteen years. He mentioned that his idea of a haunt is something that is spooky, atmospheric, maybe supernatural or even a good old monster story. He said that the minute it switches from fearing a monster like a zombie or a wolf man, to a real-world threat, he doesn’t see that as a “haunt.” 

This was all just semantics to him, but the problem he has with “extreme” experiences, is that it takes one misstep or horrible mistake, or a terrible incident in any of these extreme events, and it puts a stain on the entire Haunt and Immersive experience industry. It forces the entire industry to answer these types of questions or address the topic.

One would think this brought the Psychology of Scare to a close, but the panelists seemed to just be getting started! The dove into other topics, like how to create an environment where your guests are willing and able to suspend disbelief, and more. Jon Braver put the priority on the good storyline, and actors. Rick put environment and sets at the top of the list, and Dr. Kerr said that it requires a person to know they are safe in the context, first and foremost. There is all of this and more (including the active question and answer session), on TEA TVBe sure to check it out and share it!

All in all, the discussion was extremely interesting, informative, lively and memorable. It seems for certain all those in attendance would be glad they braved the Psychology of Scare.

To see all the fun photos provided by the three panelists, go to our Facebook page here.

Written By: Lisa Jey Schanley, Western Division Board Member, Communications Committee Co-Chair

Special thanks to TEA Western Division Communications Committee Members, Xochilt Khoury & Stefan Lawrence, EventBrite graphic,  Jon Bryan Salvador, pre-event social media graphic; Kevin Sanders, video editing; Avery Matteo, Social Media content writer; Justin Stucey, Western Division Board Member, post-event social media graphic.

Posted by Morgan Lucchese



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