One of the first people you encounter upon entering The Basement is a girl in dirty pajamas with bloody bandages over her eyes. She paws at you, begs you to tell her a story, and demands comfort. Try to hug her and she will scream violently. She is allowed to touch you, but you are not allowed to touch her.
This living nightmare is the brainchild of Margee Kerr, a PhD in sociology and teacher at the University of Pittsburgh, who operates a lab out of ScareHouse, a popular haunted house attraction in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Basement is a pet project—an interactive theater experience where she’s been given almost-free reign to use her studies into the science of fear to create a terror playground. Kerr doesn’t just know what’s scary, she also knows why it’s scary. And she’s putting her knowledge to good use.
Margee Kerr at ScareHouse. Photographed by Rachellynn Schoen.
In late September, Kerr released her first book, Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, a documentation of her own immersive fear studies over the past several years. In that time, she visited haunted houses (a.k.a “haunts”) all over the world, trailed ghost hunters, spent hours alone in “the hole” of an abandoned prison, completed the EdgeWalk at the CN Tower in Toronto, and traveled deep into Japan’s notorious Suicide Forest to contemplate mortality.
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Through her experiences and studies, Kerr—who’s always been a thrill-seeker—has learned a lot, both about the ways that the human brain processes fear in general and the ways that she deals with fear personally. One of her main takeaways is that being scared (in non-threatening situations) has immense potential to be a mess of fun. With our brains in a high arousal state, neurotransmitters like dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin can be activated—thus the highs from riding roller coasters, watching scary movies, and, of course, walking through haunted houses.
In her book, Kerr also observes that fear has the ability to bond us to other people (which is why it’s usually more fun to do scare-based activities in groups) as well as solidify our personal boundaries. Unexpectedly, fear can even calm our preexisting anxieties. Through her research at The Basement, Kerr and her lab partner Greg Siegle have discovered that being scared—and again, being scared in a fun way—leaves most of their customers feeling more relaxed and less anxious than they were before entering the attraction.
“The number of people who said they were anxious before [walking through The Basement] significantly dropped after, which makes sense,” Kerr says. “It takes the thinking brain offline for awhile and leaves them feeling like they achieved something. I asked people before and after if they feel like they challenged their fears, and those who felt like they did reported a higher mood. So it’s a sense of accomplishment.”
But the Basement doesn’t take it easy on customers. This Halloween, the theme is “bedtime,” and it’s set in a disturbed orphanage. Kerr says that the entire set was built with a small budget of about $500, and it does indeed look derelict—but that only adds to the eerie effect. Walls are made of stained muslin, rooms are filled with creepy old items that you could find at a thrift store, and a mix of songs that are alternately sped up and slowed down play on a continuous loop. (“Believe it or not, this is the SpongeBob theme song,” Kerr says, laughing. I never would have guessed.)
Guests arrive in pairs and must immediately sign a waiver that promises, among other things, that they will not put their hands on the actors at any point in the experience (break the rules and the actor will be given the opportunity to press charges). The actors are allowed to put their hands on guests. Once inside, partners are separated and forced to rediscover each other. Reunited, they are then strapped to beds and taunted by mean governesses who lightly torture them with various tactile devices.
“They’re mostly therapy tools,” Kerr says, as she shows me around. “Like this is just an acupressure pillow, but tell someone in a high arousal state that it’s bed bugs and they’ll freak.”
Some instruments are even charged with a small amount of electricity that will shock whoever it’s pushed against. The sensation, as I learn when Kerr presses one into my palm (at my request), is surprising and odd-feeling, but it’s not at all painful. The real scares in The Basement are psychological, not physical.
Understandably, stuff like that—the restraining beds, the touching, the electricity—probably keeps a lot of people from visiting The Basement. But it’s not so bad when you see it in practice. (I dare say it looks fun.) Those things are effectively frightening (volunteers’ brain waves, observed by Kerr and Siegle in their lab just a room away, shows that people do indeed get very, very scared), but what really seems to get people worked up might surprise you.
In Scream, Kerr notes that human fear has evolved over time to fit our environment. Our early ancestors were scared of man-eating monsters, for example, because they lived in environments where being eaten by animals was a very real risk. Nowadays, our phobias are typically more social. And Kerr has adjusted her haunt to accommodate that.
“This year we have group experiences,” she explains. “Participants are separated with other people, so that introduces them to stranger conflict. In some scenes, they have to speak or perform publicly. Definitely the closeness and lack of personal space in The Basement is a challenging social phobia.
“We don’t have social scripts for touching each other outside of friendship or love, and that’s so clear with The Basement,” she elaborates. “I see people touched by actors and they don’t know where to put that in their brain. There’s no folder of weird, immersive, interactive haunted houses so they tag it onto other experiences, like ‘Well, this isn’t my friend, but this person is touching me in a way that my friend would touch me. Is this sexual? That’s the only other context I know touch in,’ and it’s not, but it’s amazing how many people interpret the scenes like that because that’s what their mind is going to.”
There’s value in letting people test and understand their boundaries without the risk of encountering real danger. And Kerr wants her participants to leave feeling good. Her sociology background and intimate knowledge of fear have led to an (only initially counterintuitive) focus on well-being that is, in fact, fairly unique. ScareHouse (along with Terror Behind the Walls at the Eastern State Penitentiary) is one of a handful of haunted house attractions that have pledged to never depict scenes of sexual or domestic violence.
“If you want to keep people in a high arousal state where they feel pumped up, doing things that make them feel bad is going to bring them right down,” Kerr says. “A lot of haunts will focus on insults and shaming and I don’t understand why that’s part of it. We try to switch it up.”
Actors in The Basement—who improvise all of their lines—are strictly instructed to never use derogatory words against any protected class. This means nothing racist, sexist, transphobic, or homophobic.
The haunted attraction industry is dominated by white, conservative, religious men, Kerr informs me. Misogyny within haunts is commonplace (many depict scenes of rape) and she demands that, particularly in that respect, The Basement goes against the grain.
“There’s the immediate association of horror to misogyny and to perpetuating violence, and I think it’s really sad because it doesn’t have to be that way,” she says, exasperated. “I think that it further suggests that there’s something wrong with women who do like horror and that makes me upset because I don’t think that’s true.”
(Women, it’s worth noting, make up a slight majority of The Basement’s visitors.)
Kerr says people are often surprised to hear what the young, outspoken feminist does for a living.
“I talked to a journalist from Canada the other day who was like, ‘Are most haunts like this?’ And I had to go, ‘No there really aren’t that many haunted houses that are thinking about, you know, social issues and trying to be sensitive.”
Kerr and I could talk about the intricacies of feminism, social justice issues, and the horror industry all day. She explains to me that her progressive bent is something she struggles to make people understand—in particular when websites like Jezebel publish articles like this, comparing her work to trauma and abuse. In that piece from 2013, Danielle Elliot writes that she felt violated by the presence of men in their underwear in The Basement, who pressed their bodies against customers. Kerr, in response, said that “violence and sex were always kept separate—if you were being groped, you weren’t being cut or treated too aggressively.” She continued:
“We really tried to keep those two things separate because we didn’t want to cross that line. Sexual assault is not the ‘fun’ kind of scare, it’s just scary. Also in the basement there are no female victims (seen commonly elsewhere). All of our female characters are strong and in control in their scenes, again this was really very important to us.”
There’s ambiguity in this calculation—how much women’s specific potential experiences should be accounted for in this type of work—and it’s an important calculation to make. But from my hours in The Basement (spent only as an observer, not as a participant), I take a different view of things. People who buy tickets are fully and repeatedly informed, both verbally and in writing, of what they’re getting into before entering. They are given a safe word that will halt the experience at any time. Though the touching can be uncomfortable (intimate even), the customer is ultimately in full control. More often than not, it’s actually the actors who are at risk of getting hurt or groped. (Kerr has called the police on customers before.)
But the differing perceptions of The Basement does bring up an interesting point: Why do some people like being scared while others don’t?
“It is the natural high that some people experience and, as more research is done, it becomes more clear that threat is very individualized,” Kerr tells me (she explains it at length in Scream). “It’s a constant feedback loop between our environment and our bodies as we respond to stress in our environment. It changes how we then respond to stress. It changes based on the individual so for some it can feel really good.”
Victims of real trauma, for example, will (understandably) have a much harder time finding the fun in fear than people who’ve only experienced terrible things through movies.
“Some people have only been scared during bad times,” she says. “So it’s going to be really solidified in their mind that this is a bad feeling.”
Through this lens, Kerr views scary entertainment as a form of exposure therapy: “The more times you’re startled and it’s fun, the more fun it becomes, and the sort of bad or negative experiences are washed out.”
What Kerr likes best about observing The Basement is when people start laughing at their own terrified reactions. From what I observe while watching participants alongside her, people do seem like they’re having a great time. Though I decline her invite to fully experience The Basement—there was no way in hell that I’m walking through it alone—watching other people do it makes me eager to return with a friend.
In fact, walking through The Basement, meeting the actors, and having Kerr explain the scares along the way has made ScareHouse, the more traditional haunted house that rages away upstairs, feel downright quaint and—though I admittedly shriek the whole way through it—a little bit boring.
“There’s not enough story, just a lot of startles,” I complain to Kerr, who has graciously agreed to walk through the haunt with me. (I have screamed directly in her ear several times at this point.) The sociologist answers with a small shrug. The Basement is the answer to my complaint. Beneath our feet is a character-driven world where participants are interacting with actors, being tied to beds, and living out their scariest childhood nightmares (complete with an encounter with the Sandman). I’ll come back as a paying customer, and definitely with a friend. And what new boundary-pushing horrors will Kerr come up with by then? I can’t—and don’t want to—fathom it.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images courtesy of ScareHouse and Public Affairs Books.