Fans of the Hollywood flick The Houses October Built (AKA The Houses Of Halloween) will appreciate that there is a line between a thrilling and enjoyable haunted house and one that leaves its visitors traumatized (or dead). New research accepted for publication in the journal Psychological Science aimed to investigate where this “Goldilocks Zone” – neither too frightening or too tame – of enjoyable terror sat within the context of a haunted house, by sending in 110 participants and observing how they reacted. Their findings revealed that haunted houses are most effective when they trigger a specific physiological response, which can be measured by changes in heart rate. The fun however can turn to flat-out fear if we’re overwhelmed by the experience and treading this fine line can be perilous as we all have have different tolerances for frightening experiences.
Haunted houses have been spoken about for centuries but their popularity as an orchestrated Halloween attraction has grown in recent years, with “haunted” houses and experiences across the globe competing to become bigger, bolder, and scarier. There have been real and false stories about times when haunted houses have gone too far, from an unfortunate school principal who accidentally died in a display designed to spook his students, to fake tales of chainsaw massacres inside Halloween attractions.
According to a report from the Washington Post, a “survival horror challenge” called McKamey Manor in the US requires all participants to undergo a physical exam, a background check, a drug screen, and sign a 40-page waiver before they’ll even be considered to be let in. So, how can these establishments ascertain what the upper limit for fear-based-fun is and recognize when they’ve gone too far?
Lead author on this new research, Marc Malmdorf Andersen from the Interacting Minds Center at Aarhus University, Denmark, wanted to investigate the relationship between fear and pleasure to see if there was a “sweet spot” where enjoyment was maximized that could be scientifically identified. They released a group of 110 participants into a commercial haunted house in Vejle, Denmark, and studied how they responded to the exhibits and actors with a real-time heart rate monitor. The haunted house had almost 50 rooms containing spooky scenes and jump-scare actors that saw the participants charged at by zombies and monsters.
“Our study provides some of the first empirical evidence on the relationship between fear, enjoyment, and physical arousal in recreational forms of fear,” Anderson said in a statement.
The participants were watched through close-circuit monitors so the researchers could obtain qualitative data on how they responded to the most frightening stimuli, and this footage was later reviewed by an independent party to further analyze their reactions. After surviving the ordeal, the participants gave a self-assessment of their experience of the haunted houses.
The researchers then compared the participant’s self-assessment against the heart rate monitors and surveillance cameras, and were able to identify which experiences inside the haunted house were enjoyable and which were just downright terrifying. They could then model the behavioral and physiological responses associated with fun and fear and recognized an inverted U-shape trend that denoted the Goldilocks Zone inside which the participants were scared but still enjoying it.
“By investigating how humans derive pleasure from fear, we find that there seems to be a ‘sweet spot’ where enjoyment is maximized,” said Andersen. “This is strikingly similar to what scientists have found to characterize human play. We know, for instance, that curiosity is often aroused when individuals have their expectations violated to a just-right degree, and several accounts of play stress the importance of just-right doses of uncertainty and surprise for explaining why play feels enjoyable."
It appears science can recognize when we're enjoying fear, so can it identify the best stimuli for getting us into this fear-fun sweet spot? We took a deep dive into the science behind horror movies to find out.