Haunted houses are a huge cultural attraction for students, who enjoy a chance to get the scare of a lifetime each year, but what it is that keeps people coming back?
According to BYU psychology professor Hal Miller, most of what we fear in our lives is conditioned. Some fears, such as fear of the dark, heights or simply reactionary fears are considered natural. But as a child, people learn what to fear.
Much of this learned fear results from familiar stories that individuals grow up hearing. These stories often depict certain animals, creatures, beings or even people as evil, creating a conditioned fear.
“Around Halloween, we give way to situations where we don’t have that control,” Miller said. “(We) deliberately place (ourselves) in a situation where (we) don’t have control, in order to be frightened and that’s a form of entertainment.”
Miller says the entertainment is primarily being with other people. When with other people, one can turn to them to be reassured about the unreality of the situation.
“It becomes a different experience if I’m alone,” Miller said. “There’s something about being with other people and something about having one’s heart rate increase but not interminably. It’s kind of like taking a new ride at the amusement park; we can always close our eyes.”
Miller emphasized how important the setting of the fear is when he said, “All of that can be transformed readily when one gets lost in the woods at night. What was so fun at Halloween is just the opposite now, because there is no one else there and the surprises aren’t controllable.”
The social reinforcements and controllable surprises were enough to draw in BYU junior Matt Swanson. Swanson said he thinks haunted houses are fun because it’s a chance to “look dumb” and “laugh at yourself and your friends for getting scared.”
Swanson said he finds scary movies scarier than haunted houses because in a scary movie he feels stuck — he can’t move like he could in a haunted house.
“I’m more scared of girls than haunted houses,” Swanson said.
BYU senior Ashley Lindenau, on the other hand, does not want to repeat her haunted house experience. At 15, Lindenau visited a haunted house with her parents and younger brother. She decided to go because otherwise she would’ve been at home alone, which she said was scarier than going.
“In the parking lot there were people walking around and scaring us and I started crying,” Lindenau said. “I wanted to go home but my parents wouldn’t let me. I was so scared and crying so this guy dressed up as a creepy nurse … started dancing and trying to make me laugh.”
Lindeau said she disliked the fear of the unknown and her lack of control in the situation.
Haunted houses won’t disappear and will perhaps pop up even earlier next year. Some haunted houses were opening mid-September this year.
“Halloween will go on exciting us through its frightmares for as far as we can see in the future. It’s here to stay,” Miller said.