Updated: Mar 10, 2020
Post by: Jessica
When we think of Fall and Halloween many things come to mind; pumpkins, creepy decorations, costumes, horror movie marathons, and candy. Then there are people who think of how to make walking through a decrepit space the most terrifying experience for a paying customer. Here comes the haunted house. Not just a plot point in many Gothic novels or narrative children tell when daring each other to enter an abandoned place (I have done this for sure), but the main attraction of a theme park or Fall season event. Across the United States, there are an estimated 5,000 commercial haunted house attractions and they have become integral to 21st century Halloween traditions. Watching the crowds gather at a local haunted house attraction on a Halloween night confirms this. Why is that? Because people love to be scared or get a close experience like their favourite horror movie.
Why do haunted houses creep us out so much? I ask this question because I know for myself that I am intrigued by the stories of murder or tragic suicides that surround a haunted house, and I love reading all about them and other peoples’ experiences. I also love to hear stories from my friends when they experience a haunted house attraction. But for myself? I am too terrified of going into a haunted house, historical or even just a made up attraction. Too many times have I gone to Saunder’s Farm in Ottawa around Halloween with the intention of entering the many haunted attractions they have. But each time I get a foot into the house, realize how uncomfortable I feel, I become almost paralyzed with fear and can’t go any further. I have never finished a haunted house, as I either chicken out in the beginning or need to leave via an emergency exit halfway through. So I am normally the one person in a group that stays outside in the cold with my hot cider waiting for everyone else. But what about supposed historical haunted houses? Do those creep me out as well? - The answer is Yes. I always get a weird sense and become uncomfortable. But still why is that?
In Cornelia Dudley’s article, Evolutionary Psychology explains why Haunted Houses creep Us Out, she talks about why people fear the concept of the haunted house and how it triggers within us feelings of dread. An internal alarm inside our brains gets set off warning us to use caution when we sense any kind of potential threat or danger. So that image of people slowly creeping through the house after hearing an unexplained noise upstairs? That is this internal alarm inside the brain or some say intuition. Evolutionary psychologist call this agent detection mechanism, this is a school of thought which discusses the processes of hypervigilance that has evolved to protect us from harm. This allows the individual to be ready to react quickly to whatever situation is thrown at them. Hypervigilance is what makes us react to those unclear sounds or cold spots in an old home or ‘haunted house’ that we would usually ignore.
Dudley also addresses why a ‘real’ haunted house is a nightmare zone. This is because the home (house) is supposed to be considered a safe place and when that space becomes violated by an unknown force, it feels like escape can be challenging especially when many of these so-called haunted houses are in remote or isolated areas. You don’t know if leaving the house, your supposed safe place, is good or bad and thus it leaves you feeling uneasy. It is like being trapped in the middle of a haunted house attraction; you don’t want to continue forward because you are unaware of what is ahead, but you don’t want to go back and face the things that already scared you. So you stay stuck, paralyzed in one spot unsure what decision to make and being super aware. Or maybe that’s just me… hence panic attack looking for the closest exit… So embarrassing... yet made for a good laugh for my partner at the time.
As humans, we prefer our home to be a place of refuge and comfort, where we can walk in, plunk ourselves on the couch and recharge from the world. We are also aware of what is around us and in most situation seat ourselves in areas of the home that allow us to have a clear unobstructed view or as Dudley describes it “a womb with a view”. However, the haunted house in movies and as attractions are the complete opposite. It is what is lurking in the shadows that has a refuge, whereas the rest of us don’t and we are assaulted when we think we are safe.
Now, this post just focused on the concept of the haunted house and those attractions that creep us out, but in my research, I came across the most interesting concept that I plan to learn more about, Hell Houses. Now I am not talking about the fantastic Shudder Exclusive Hell House LLC (watch it!), but the Christian Hell Houses that are prevalent around the US. These Hell Houses are created by Christian evangelicals to create ‘violent’ wake up calls to those who may have gone ‘astray.’ This is done by providing visitors displays of possibilities and consequences of the choices made during their life which results in either going to heaven or hell. They literally scare people back into the church’s fold.
But I am sorry, maybe I should stick to feeling creeped out in a supposedly haunted historical space or chickening out every year I try to make it through a haunted house attraction.