I loved everything about Margee Kerr’s Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. Plus the title kept putting the Misfits in my head. Specifically, Scream!. Before starting every chapter I absolutely had to enjoy the video directed by George Romero. There are worse urges.
As a sociologist working at Pittsburgh’s ScareHouse, a haunted attraction many consider among the best in the U.S., Kerr studies a kind of fear. I don’t know the technical term, let’s call it fun fear. The kind you experience when you sign up, wait in line, drive to a theme park. This is where she starts us. Her research on the benefits of fear and it’s potential application goes much deeper than Weeee!.
The book is divided into four sections: Physical Thrills, Psychological Chills, Real Fears and Bringing It Home. Kerr takes us on a ghost hunt at Eastern State Penitentiary, to the edge of a skyscraper in Canada, from roller coasters, haunted houses and the suicide forest in Japan, to a dodgy street in Bogota and a dream job research lab. She details each adventure along the way, contextualizing and contrasting the physiological effects of, for example, 2-minute thrill rides versus walking around the edge of a skyscraper for an hour.
The science behind sensations and intuitive responses is fascinating. Thrill seekers will appreciate learning that the stomach-dropping feeling you get on roller coasters is no illusion. It really does sort of drop. Apparently the stomach is so loosey-goosey that gravity affects it separately. When we get tunnel vision and temporary loss of hearing, that’s our primal instincts kicking in. The body is hard-wired for survival. Doing scary things like throwing ourselves out of a plane goes against every natural instinct. Maybe we get paralyzed with fear because those primal instincts don’t know about parachutes. In any case, doing scary things opens a door to euphoria and profound personal growth, which Kerr demonstrates throughout.
Kerr’s account of her adventure on the top of Toronto’s CN Tower is surprisingly gripping. My first impression was that this is one of many (pricey) interactive attractions contrived to cash in on the public’s growing appetite for not-so-cheap thrills and look-at-me-doing-something-Dangerous selfies. EdgeWalk entails walking on a metal grate 1,467 ft from the ground, performing “stunts” like leaning over the edge. She reconstructs the experience of how she felt at each progression and what it was like to work through unexpected terror while also explaining the science behind her reactions and why she left feeling empowered.
Understanding more about fear doesn’t mean you won’t get scared anymore. Kerr shares feelings of dread and terror in lucid detail. A heightened emotional state enables us to remember things vividly. That’s why memories of scary experiences are so powerful. Kerr touches on post traumatic stress and potential ways to help people suffering from PTSD by re-associating some memories with more positive fear experiences.
My favorite parts were her Japan adventures. Japan should export their haunted houses. Or scooch closer. Better yet, build bullet planes so the flight from NYC would be the length of a nice nap.
The haunted houses in Japan take a nuanced, artful approach to stimulating all of the senses with headphones, things you have to touch, and not worrying so much about scaring people forward. Imagine walking through a haunted house with a buddy and you’re both wearing headphones and maybe you’re not hearing the same thing. Maybe you two have a completely different experience. Maybe you have flashlights to find your way through the dark, multiple doors you have to choose from, a task you must perform.
My personal bubble is massive so a haunted house with a mission or narrative puzzle sounds ideal. The most memorable haunted house I went to was horror movie themed. The first room was small, quiet and barely lit. There was a girl sitting up in a bed, disturbed and very gross. The bed occupied the entire room so to get through you had to climb over the bed, over her legs. On the other side of the bed was a door to a dark room with a lot of hanging barely lit bodies you had to find your way around. Part way through some of the bodies started to move. A walkway over squishy things took you back to Nancy running up the marshmallow stairs in Nightmare on Elm Street. I loved the physicality and use of haunt actors to animate the scenes without the cheesiness of direct address, but we still felt like cattle being herded through as quickly as possible.
You’ll have to wait until the end for a glimpse of The Basement, the result of Kerr’s ongoing collaboration with ScareHouse. The Basement is an “interactive theater experience” scientifically designed to take people to psychologically dark places AND leave them feeling great after. As with other professional attractions labeled “extreme”, The Basement has a safe word so people can end the experience whenever they want to.
Scream offers something for runners, too. Near the end the author has herself tested at a research facility and learns she uses the same mental technique many ultra runners intuitively use to grit through long distances. Its not that they don’t feel the pain and stress of 50+ miles. Some tell themselves it doesn’t hurt or even that it feels good. Detaching themselves, re-framing what they’re feeling or simply focusing on something else minimizes the pain or at least the perception of pain, which is kind of the same thing. Maybe this why so many runners prefer the outdoors with its endless array of external diversions.
I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t gain something by reading this book. Fear is something every one of us experience so why not learn more about it? The author leaves her readers in launch mode, encouraging them to do more things that scare them. Out of context do something that scares you sounds like a flimsy affirmation. Coming from Margee Kerr, it’s just good advice.