This year, Northern Illinois University is hosting a series of virtual STEM cafes. One of them, “The Psychology of Haunted Houses” will break down what it takes for “a good scare.”
Taking on this task are collaborators Paul Kassel, dean of the NIU College of Visual and Performing Arts, and Jim Langley, scene and lighting designer and retired theater professor. The two will focus on chemistry, lighting technology and the brain to explain how to make haunted houses more effective.
In his presentation, Kassel plans to discuss the human reaction to horror. He said that horror is meant to create a “safe fear” but still evoke a reaction from the viewer.
“There are some fundamental things about us, right from an evolutionary point of view, the four actions: fight, feed, flee and procreate,” he said. “All those are mixed into every horror movie you see and are basic impulses to approach or withdraw.”
Kassel said that one tactic haunted houses and horror films use to create these reactions is surprise.
“You’ll almost always see that someone is distracted,” he said, “or the filmmaker distracts the audience so (clap) the surprise happens and everyone jumps.”
He said that to draw away focus, one can use lighting, sound or appeal to the fears of the viewer.
Kassel finds the main difference between most media and horror is the range of emotions experienced, and that is what makes horror so appealing.
“In a scary movie, you feel threatened,” he said. “And I think that is a different feeling than when you go to a play and watch a romance or a comedy. The idea of threat doesn’t exist. But, in a haunted house, that’s exactly what we’re playing with — the notion of threat — which is pretty creepy, but very interesting.”
And to judge by the number of haunted houses every year, also very popular.
Registration is required to access the program. You can register here.