Monday, October 30, 2006

Columbia Daily Tribune

Science of scare

With actors, makeup, lights, sounds and a lot of psychology, haunted house maestros learn how to pull the strings of fear.

It’s pitch-black. Your eyes strain to see.

Parker Eshelman photos
Caleb Burns is an employee at Fearfest, which boasts at least 43 paid actors and 20 volunteers to help frighten customers using many layers of scare

Above, Greg Allen, co-owner of Fearfest, tours one of the rooms before operating hours. Below, Christina Rogers applies blood to Caleb Burns’ forehead before a night of scaring folks.

Your breathing quickens. Your heart begins to race.

You know you’re just in a haunted house, nothing can hurt you, but …

You hear a whisper of rustling cloth, a footfall. You spin in the dark trying to find where it’s coming from.

Suddenly you know someone is standing right behind you.

You run.

You’ve succumbed to the coveted fight-or-flight response haunted house owners invest thousands to trigger in their customers’ brains. Both Fearfest in Midway and Necropolis in Columbia expanded and intensified their houses this year in an effort to meet customer demands and scare an increasingly desensitized population, owners said.

“The main thing we have to do with the haunted house is take a typical adult or mature people and scare them when A: they know it’s not real and B: we can’t touch them,” Necropolis owner Bill Schnell said.

Fearfest co-owner Greg Allen, 43, said haunted houses use a combination of tricks to scare customers, then give them a breather with a “letdown,” or scare-free part of the house, to manipulate a customer’s adrenaline rush.

“What we try to do is get a shock, then a letdown, a shock, a letdown,” he said. “We may go for two or three shocks, then a letdown. We don’t want people to relax, we want high stress all the way through, but we don’t want people to have heart attacks, either,” Allen said.

The effects can be as simple as a door slamming in a dark room, which is a personal favorite of Allen’s, to complicated motorized devices like a vortex tunnel, which manipulates a person’s sense of vertigo.

A new trend in the industry, which was developed by two haunted house enthusiasts in Utah, is to try to trigger basic human instinct to overcome human intelligence to get the fight-or-flight response.

Brothers Sean and Adam Murray of the Layton, Utah-based Halloween Theater presented their first seminar at HAuNTCon in 2005. Sean Murray said he’s seen many haunted houses fall flat because they go big with their special effects and ignore the psychological side of the scare.

“I’ve seen the same thing with movies. They think the bigger the

budget or a scarier monster will make a difference, but it’s less expensive and more effective to do it this way,” Sean Murray said of Halloween Theatre’s system of FEAR. or “False Experience Appearing Real.”

Sean and Adam Murray developed the “Five Laws of Fear” for haunted houses, which involve preying on multiple senses, escalating tension and creating synergy between effects, according to its Web site at

Sean Murray said he started reading research papers on lab rat research into “fear potentiation” to develop the rules.

“One law is to prey on multiple senses. A lot of haunts make the mistake of making it a purely visual experience with lots blood and gore but forget aural and tactile responses you can manipulate at the same time to make it more difficult for the brain to analyze,” Sean Murray said.

It’s an effect Schnell calls “layering.”

Schnell, 27, and wife Jennifer, 26, attended “Mind Games — The Art of Getting into Their Heads” at HAuNTCon. Bill Schnell said the FEAR rules inspired them.

“We definitely believe there is a science to scaring people — a psychological scientific framework,” he said.

Schnell said a single-layer scare would be an audio scare like a loud bang. If you add a visual scare like a bright light flashing with the sound, it increases the startle factor. Adding a tactile scare like the floor shaking beneath a customer brings it to a higher level and makes it more likely the fight-or-flight response will kick in.

“It just adds and adds and adds,” he said.

There is an inverse correlation between the intensity of the scare and a house’s customer base, Schnell said.

“Haunted houses have to decide if they want to stay at a point of intensity where kids can go through, which is a good business decision because there are lots of families that want to go to haunted houses” he said Monday night. “We knew we wanted it to be scary and veered by the end of” last “season to being as scary as we can.”

Schnell said it worked.

So many people are bolting out fire exits before the end of his haunted house, Schnell is having trouble counting them, he said, which haunted house owners usually do for bragging rights. “We actually had a girl the first or second night … her hand was bleeding in the haunted house,” Schnell said.

Schnell rushed in with a first-aid kit. “As I came in, it turned out she was so scared she’d had her hand clenched and her nails dug through her palm and made her bleed,” he said.

Fearfest also upped the ante this year — its fourth — by creating three attractions in the place of one. The old startle classic “The House” still stands, but they added on a high-gore attraction, the “SlashMasters Asylum” and “Chained Agony,” a chain-link fence maze in which guys with chain saws are trying to “tag” you.

Co-owner Christina Rogers said last weekend six people got so scared before even entering the attractions that they didn’t buy tickets.

Both houses depend heavily on actors to get their scares. Fearfest hired 43 paid actors this year and has a group of about 20 volunteers, Allen said. Necropolis has three tiers of volunteers, about 20 in all, and Necropolis is designed around them. The first unpaid tier does safe scares, usually quick jump-outs. The middle tier, which is paid, does more in-your-face scares.

Schnell said there are two classic actor scares. The actors either jump out to startle then back off or slowly creep into a room to scare customers. “Our actors will come running full speed and won’t back off,” he said. “It makes it very scary and also dangerous for our actors.”

Flight is only one of two possible reactions in the fight-or-flight response.

Sometimes people fight back.

“We hit them from the side, from behind, but not from the front,” Allen said. The customer’s “natural reaction is to put their hands up and confront someone; that is going to get someone hurt.”

Schnell’s top tier of paid volunteers — also the ones who give the most intense scares — are ones he knows can take a punch without fighting back. “If they get punched in the face, they are just going to escort the customer out.”

Schnell said his actors would push normal haunted house limits. You could be cowering in a corner, and they will still be coming at you, he said, all in the name of fun, of course.

Fearfest employee Shane Giesing, 21, of Millersburg said he’s discovered a few scare tactics that prey on people’s instincts. “Staring at people with a straight face freaks people out,” he said.

Rogers said she and Allen depend on their actors to have mental and physical endurance — mental endurance for repeating the same 20-second skit every 35 seconds and physical endurance for tasks like running after people with chain saws.

Joe Lunsford, 27, is one of the masked, chain-saw-wielding madmen in “Chained Agony.”

Nothing evokes wild-eyed terror like a chain-saw, Lunsford said. He and a partner attempt to split up groups in the chain-link fence maze and corner the group that is more scared, he said.

“A lot of people come in and keep going around in circles,” he said. “They get so scared they lose their sense of direction.”

Rogers said it’s not uncommon for customers to actually wet their pants, vomit — or worse. “You can’t scare every one, but the ones you do, you get more out of them than screaming,” she said.