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31 Days of Halloween

‘Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear’ — book review

Is it good to get scared?

Welcome to today’s installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October, we’ll be talking to creators working in horror and sharing and recommending various pieces of underappreciated scary media — books, comics, movies, and television — to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.

Fear is inevitable, often for good reason. While fear can be useful in keeping us out of danger, it can also keep us from personal growth and new experiences. Fear is also routinely exploited as a marketing tool. Politicians, the news media, food bloggers, and many others use fear as a way to guide the choices of the public. Fear, and the way we experience it, is mostly negative.

But what of the “positive side of fear”? What about the fear we actually seek out for entertainment? Sociologist Margee Kerr chronicles her quest to understand this side of fear in the book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.

On her two-year quest, which she calls her “adventure in fear,” Kerr traveled to places and attractions strongly associated with fear. Born from a desire to study and experience the phenomenon outside the lab, Kerr’s trip to locales in and out of the U.S. took her to attractions known for providing different types of scares.

In Japan she experienced a truly frightening haunted house attraction and spent some time in the infamous Suicide Forest of Aokigahara. In Canada she endured a tour on a narrow walkway on the CN Tower, known as the  world’s tallest structure for over 30 years.  She traveled to Bogota, Columbia, where she encountered totally unexpected, visceral fear after taking a wrong turn in a scary part of town. Kerr actually made two separate visits to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, one to experience solitary confinement, and another for a ghost hunt.

While discussing many of the scares she’s endured, Kerr describes her personal reactions — the initial hesitation, the terror that’s always more intense than expected, the resulting “high” and broadened perspective in the aftermath are relayed for each experience. Kerr separates the fear created by these experiences into three categories:

  • Physical Thrills: Roller coasters and heights.
  • Psychological Chills: Solitary confinement and ghost hunting.
  • Real Fear: The wrong turn in Bogota, and the loneliness and existential dread of Aokigahara forest.

Kerr also discusses our physical connection to fear.  Most people probably have a basic understanding of how our bodies and senses are affected by a fight or flight reaction (adrenaline, increased focus, etc.). But how many of us know that during a roller coaster ride, the shift in our internal organs transmits confusing signals to our brains, thus making it even scarier? Kerr describes this process and others, to bring the reader closer to understanding how fear affects us neurologically.

Some of these adventures and experiences trigger more than fear responses for the author. Kerr shares some deeply personal connections to fear and loss that she relates to her external experience.  These confessions show a bravery that goes beyond stepping onto a roller coaster, or into a haunted house.

The end result is a broadened perspective and fuller appreciation for the fear that people seek out. These aspects of Kerr’s experience are incorporated into how she approaches her studies at the institution where she earned her master’s degree in sociology, the University of Pittsburgh, and at the haunted house where she conducts surveys.

The reader will gain insight into this perspective from the author’s descriptions and many references to scientific articles and papers (all listed in the notes section). Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear is a good guide for understanding fear on an intellectual and personal level. It may inspire others to embark on their own adventure in fear.

Not me, though. I’m too scared.

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

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