The Scary Science of Halloween Haunting

To quote Glee‘s Sue Sylvester: “It’s time to get back to the real meaning of Halloween. Fear.”

This is the time of year when all of us — rich and poor, young and old, living and undead — can put aside our differences and celebrate the sheer joy of having the wits scared out of us. Most of the time, we do our best to avoid fear, so it’s nice that once a year society can acknowledge the pleasure of terror. Of course, for the scientifically minded, this inevitably raises the question: just how scary is scary?

Two years ago, Michigan cardiologist Nathan Foster decided to find out. With the permission of the owner of Erebus, a celebrated haunted-house attraction near Detroit, he pulled people out of the line waiting to get in and measured their blood pressure, then hooked them up to a portable heart rate monitor. Just waiting for their nightmare to begin, he found, had already set their bodies’ fear response systems into overdrive, with blood pressure way above the normal 120/80. “Everybody on line was hypertensive, even young healthy people,” he told me.

After his 39 subjects had been through the haunted house, he checked the data on their recorders and found that most had seen their heart rates soar from about 60 or 70 — a normal resting heart rate —  to 150-160 beats per minute. This is well into the aerobic range, what a person might experience if they were out on a long, vigorous run or bike ride.

“Some people were even higher than that,” Foster said. “One subject even experienced PVCs,” or premature ventricular complexes, an arrhythmia that be indicative of heart disease.

This being Halloween, my thoughts naturally took a ghoulish turn. Does this finding, I asked, mean that somebody could actually die of fright-night terror?

“There is some anecdotal evidence that people experienced myocardial infarctions triggered by extreme emotional shifts,” he admitted, but then quickly cautioned: “It’s hard to image how you could research this. You’d have to study millions of people to find the one that happens to die on line for the haunted house.”

Clearly, this mad scientist has more work to do.

Fortunately, he is not alone in the burgeoning field of amusement-park terror studies. In 2003 Cindy Meston and Penny Frohlich published a paper in the Archives of Sexual Behavior describing an experiment they performed with the help of roller-coaster riders. They approached men and women who were either about to get on a ride or had just gotten off and showed them a picture of an average-looking person of the opposite gender. They then asked the subjects to rate the attractiveness of the person in the photo. As expected, subjects who had just gotten off the ride, and whose bloodstreams were therefor pumping with adrenaline,  found the pictured person more attractive.The authors attribute this effect to “excitation transfer theory,” which, they write,

“…posits that residual excitement from a previous arousing stimulus or situation may serve to intensify a later emotional state. Inherent to this theory is the well-established fact that sympathetic nervous system arousal does not terminate abruptly with the cessation of the eliciting conditions, but rather it declines relatively slowly, resulting in a certain degree of arousal residue. It is during this period of residual excitement that an individual who is exposed to a subsequent emotion-provoking situation may misattribute the
residual excitement to their current situation.”

In other words, people who find themselves staring at a member of the opposite sex with their heart pounding are liable to confuse arousal caused by fear with arousal caused by romantic passion. So, as you prepare to go out on Halloween and confront ghastly terror, remember the lessons of science: it can both kill us and help us fall in love.

2 thoughts on “The Scary Science of Halloween Haunting”

  1. Hi Jeff, I came across this blog you wrote last year. Fun to see our work cited and applied to other contexts such as Halloween. I find my heart beating a little faster as I type this comment. We’ll see if I feel a tad more affectionately towards the next person I encounter. Kind regards, Penny

  2. Thanks for your note, Penny. Your experiment was fascinating — I’d love to hear what you’ve been working on since.

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