Shir Atzil, a former post-doc in the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Lab, uses her head to help scare haunted house visitors. (Courtesy of NewtonHauntedHouse.org)
It’s a classic Halloween activity: the homemade haunted house, replete with cold spaghetti “worms” and bowls of peeled-grape “eyeballs.” Remember?
That old tradition gets a 21st-century scientific twist at an elaborate haunted house in Newton that opens for just one night a year — the night before Halloween — to raise money for charity. And it is elaborate not just in its multitudes of living ghouls, its gaggles of graves and squads of skeletons.
It is an exercise in scare tactics informed by brain science.
“You can be really artful about how you scare people without a lot of gore,” says Northeastern University professor Lisa Feldman Barrett. “And I thought, well, who better to do that than a lab that studies the science of emotion? We can use research to predict what the effects will be, to make it super-scary without a lot of blood and guts.”
Barrett leads the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Lab at Northeastern and Massachusetts General Hospital. For the last 10 Halloweens, she and her family have created a haunted basement in their Victorian home, helped by her lab colleagues — grad students, post-docs and other researchers who play monsters for the night.
Some of their scare techniques may not seem to differ much from those of amusement park haunted houses, but they’re devised by neuroscientists who live and breathe the brain.
“What your brain is doing is making predictions based on past experience,” Barrett says as she leads the way into the labyrinth in her basement. “So if we set up things to look really kitschy at the beginning, with a lot of props, your expectation is, ‘This is going to be pretty lame, this is not going to be very scary.’ And when you walk in, we will violate that expectation.”
Indeed they do. You walk into a dimly lit room and notice some skulls, some bats and what seems to be a statue of a human-sized monster sitting on a table. You’re not sure, though, if it’s a statue or a live person, until it — or rather, he — opens his eyes very wide and stares into yours. Yikes.
Barrett says the effect carries a wallop in part because the brain is wired to pay huge attention to whether an object is alive or inanimate. (You can imagine why that would be important for survival.)
When visitors are unsure whether a figure is alive or a statue, they often “freeze in uncertainty,” she says, just like a rat in an experiment when it’s not sure whether it’s about to receive a small electric shock.
Also, certain special effects fire up specific parts of the brain, Barrett says, including the amygdala, an area important for detecting uncertainty or novelty. The neurons in the amygdala are very tuned to eyes, “to whether the eyes are open or shut or moving, and how much white. The more white there is, especially in a still face, the scarier people find it.”
Here’s another brain-science trick: It’s scarier when you first see something out of the corner of your eye, because your peripheral vision involves more uncertainty.
Many of the the haunted house effects are aimed at increasing uncertainty, Barrett says, “because uncertainty enhances arousal — I don’t mean sexual arousal, I mean feeling activated and worked up and jittery.” Continue reading