Fear: What is it good for?
November is here, which means the season of ghosts and goblins has come to pass. As an enthusiast of all-things-haunted, I filled the month of October with scary movie nights, Halloween costume parties, visits to a haunted house and Phantom Fright Nights at my local amusement park, and even an outing that involved shooting paintballs at zombies. As any good graduate student in the social sciences might do, I pondered the sociological aspects of these activities throughout the month. What makes this campy season of fear so popular in U.S. culture? Does it serve any purposes beyond providing consumers with themed entertainment, as the producers of frightening fun reap massive profits each fall?
During this month of festivities, I coincidently learned that a local instructor and graduate of my department at the University of Pittsburgh has been providing assistance to an area haunted house. Margee Kerr, the resident sociologist of Scare House, researches what frightens customers most deeply. In her forthcoming book, “Scream: Adventures in the Upside of Fear,” due out in 2015, she explores why so many people are seeking out the thrill of being afraid when, as scholars suggest, our culture is supposedly already consumed with fear. Kerr finds that consumers benefit socially and psychologically as the frightening encounters provide chemical rushes and increased confidence as a result of surviving a scary situation, and the activities also serve as a vehicle for social group bonding through the shared experience of triumph over danger.
Kerr’s findings resonate with my experiences. However, conversations that arose from making plans with friends to attend these attractions caused me to ponder the usefulness of fear as a singular, overarching category. Are there different types of fear that don’t quite fall upon the same spectrum and, if so, are the same social and psychological benefits achieved across categories? To provide background, my fellow fear-seekers and I ended up discussing what activities we were not interested in attending. One we rejected, for example, was a new attraction Scare House added this year called The Basement, advertising “tight spaces, strong scents, profanity, moments of complete darkness, water, physical contact, sexual and violent situations and high impact scares.” People interested in going through The Basement were required to sign a liability waiver and there was a safe-word protocol in case guests decided they wanted no more of the experience. The Basement is by far one of the tamer attractions out there, as is evident by glancing at one blog that highlights “The Five Most Extreme Haunted Houses in America.”
The Basement and the more “extreme” attractions raised questions about whether all types of fear can be lumped together. Why is an experience considered more edgy and extreme if it includes fear based on sexualized violence, sexual violation or the suggestion of? Is it really just further along the same spectrum as say, being chased by a vampire or an undead baby doll with a knife? Or is this a whole other genre, separate from experiences that would be considered haunted, with different functions and different benefits? For example, some attractions may serve the purpose of providing space for the exploration of non-normative sexualities, packaged in a form that is more acceptable to mainstream culture under the guise of the celebration of Halloween. In other words, framing the “extreme” experiences as simply one end of a spectrum could allow for wider cultural acceptance of sexualities otherwise stigmatized as deviant.
This is not a body of literature I am familiar with but I welcome suggestions or other insights from you, dear readers!