Margee Kerr is a scare expert. She works for ScareHouse, and her job is to figure out what scares people and why. Just look at that scary, bad-ass picture. Thanks for the possible nightmares, Margee!
1. So what is your job description? What do you do as a scare expert?
I have the craziest, but most awesome, job description ever—figure out how to scare people in all the good ways. But really, my job description is closer to that of a data analyst and applied sociologist. The majority of my work, while ScareHouse is open, is collecting, entering, and analyzing data — lots and lots of data. Every weekend, I’m collecting surveys from customers that include questions about what they found scary, not scary, what would make it better, what they loved the most, and, of course, what they didn’t like. I enter all the data into spreadsheets and the data analysis program SPSS. If anything pops up right away, I’ll let the owners know, and they’ll make the changes the next day.
For a fun example, we discovered the scent box which sprays a peppermint mist in one of the haunts was REALLY annoying people, so we moved it. I also look closely at who’s coming — how old they are, if they have been before, their sex, if they’re coming with others, etc. It’s pretty interesting, not only from a marketing perspective, but to see who’s showing up for self-scaring activities (are similar demographics seen for museums? For sky diving? Theme parks?). Finally, I’ll run some basic market saturation reports to see how we’re doing in our market and what areas we should try and target with advertising, but I like looking at the scary data better!
My job changes slightly during the off season. Throughout the winter and into the summer, I’m constantly reading new research on fear — from a psychological perspective, a sociological perspective, and a biological perspective. There is so much new exciting brain research happening, it’s hard to keep up with! I’ll then take what I learn back to the creative director Scott Simmons, and he’ll figure out how to turn the information into scares. For example, I have read a lot about facial expressions and how we respond to them — Scott was able to turn that information into some amazing characters with extremely realistic facial prosthetics that are meant to be viewed up close and personal.
2. How did you become a scare expert?
I have always loved the social sciences; I chose my social psychology major in undergrad my first year and never looked back. I loved studying people and trying to understand what makes them work. I really wanted to understand why some people are considered ‘in’ groups and some are ‘out’ groups. I was fascinated with social distance preferences, or how we determine which people we want close to us and which people we want to keep far away. We tend to keep things and people we fear far away, so I wanted to see who and what we fear.
I continued on after undergrad and earned my PhD in sociology from the University of Pittsburgh in 2009. While I was writing my dissertation, I took a break one night and went to ScareHouse. I just had such an amazing time that I wanted to be involved in any way that I could. I reached out to the owners and they said I could analyze their customer data. I felt like a kid in a candy store. It was such an amazing data set to gain access to; I dove in and found a whole new passion and research agenda. I started to see connections between what people were saying they were afraid of and a lot of the research and theory. I started putting the two together, and realized I had the chance to bring people joy through figuring out what scares them in a fun, exhilarating way. So that’s what I do, I ask people what they’re afraid of and then help deliver it to them in the most fun way possible.
3. What’s your favorite part of your job?
I LOVE watching people in the haunt. There are some key spots I like to hide and watch through our peep holes that pepper the walls. I’ll plant myself in front of one and just watch as the customers go through, noting how they react to the different scares, watching differences between men and women, young and old, couples and friends. It’s such a privilege, to witness individuals in an extremely primal and raw state. There is one spot in the haunt that has a loft. I’ll often sneak up there and watch from above where I can see about three different rooms at the same time. I’m really lucky.
4. What’s your least favorite part of your job?
My least favorite part is when I can see a small child go through the haunt. ScareHouse does not admit anyone under seven, and it’s not recommended for anyone under thirteen, but occasionally someone will argue their way in with a five or six year old, and it’s really upsetting. At that age, they are too young to understand that what they are seeing is fake. Children generally don’t learn to think logically until after the age of seven. It can be traumatizing and frightening, and NOT in a fun way. I hate thinking that they will have these very upsetting memories of haunted houses for the rest of their lives.
5. Have you seen any interesting differences between the way people react to fear (age, gender, race, etc.)?
I’ve watched a lot of people get scared, and I have always paid special attention to any differences between men and women, young and old. The fight or flight response is automatic, but not everyone gets the same kind of chemical punch, so some people are going to laugh and feel better then others.
What is really interesting to observe is how young girls respond to the scares that are more engaging, or when an actor will start talking to them (this happens in a few spots). I’ve noticed that they just start laughing uncontrollably, but it’s a nervous and spontaneous type of laugh. The adolescent guys do not seem to do this as much; they seem more likely to say words like, “DUDE” and, “WHAT NO.” I think this has to do with our socialization into our gender roles, and I do see the traditional gender norms played out, more so in line and in the lobby before entering the haunt. The men assume the puffed up ‘protector’ role when they are with women, and the women tend to keep their arms close to their chests, with their heads slightly down. What is really cool, though, is that once they enter the haunt, these stances and posturing seem to fall away and they all get scared and jump the same. Unfortunately, once they are out of the haunt, you see them take on the gender norms once again. Not everyone, but most of the teenagers who come through “do their gender.”
One day a senior citizens group came through, and that was really interesting. All of the customers appeared to be over the age of 65 and were extremely cautious and careful. They were very observant, and I could tell they were taking their time so as not to hurt themselves or their surroundings, but they jumped and screamed just like everyone else.
6. What’s the weirdest thing that has happened while you were working?
I think one of the weirdest things to observe involved a couple who went through our new attraction “The Basement.” They bought tickets and were very, very nervous. I explained that it might not be the best choice for them since it was a very intense, interactive experience. They insisted and went through and proceeded to say the safe word after only five minutes. They came running out in a fit and I honestly could not tell if they were traumatized or ecstatic. They sat, breathing heavily uttering single syllable words like “Whoa,” and, “F*ck that,” and, “Oh man.” THEN they turned around and bought two more tickets, went in again, and again called the safe word, but this time after ten minutes. They came out and were, once again, pretty amped. I talked to them and they said that they loved it, and would make it all the way through eventually. Sure enough, they came back the next weekend. It was fascinating, like watching someone work through a type of exposure therapy.
7. Why do people enjoy scary things?
I’m really excited because this is my primary topic for my upcoming book SCREAM: Adventures in the Upside of Fear, but basically there are a ton of reasons people enjoy scary things. First, the fight or flight response delivers a great chemical punch of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine. So, it’s a wonderful natural high. Second, making it through something scary also makes us feel incredibly accomplished and confident. We made it through, defeated the monster, and conquered the hoard! It’s a real self esteem boost.
8. Some fears, like fears of bugs or mice, are stereotypically seen to be “womanly fears.” Do you notice any sexism in fears?
There are gendered responses to fears, but when I look at the data, both men and women cite a lot of the same things. Especially things like bugs, critters, and anything involving death. Women and men may play out gendered roles when talking about these things, but in the dark when confronted with a gigantic rat, both men and women are going to jump.
9. What do you hope to accomplish with your research?
I really want to understand how people can enjoy scary material. It can be a great way to spice up our lives, to activate that primal part of ourselves, and to engage our lizard brain, so to speak. It feels really good to a lot of folks and I want people to experience that. I also think that people can learn so much about themselves when they confront scary material and push themselves outside of their comfort zone.
10. If there was one thing you wanted people to know about fear in general, what would it be?
Fear is not all bad. Yes, fear by its nature is scary, but a lot of good can come from engaging our fears. It’s worth the challenge.
So Margee, all-knowing, all-observing scare expert, what scares YOU?
I get this question a lot, and it’s so much fun to think about. I am pretty afraid of really big bridges (which is tough living in Pittsburgh). I have this fear that the bridge is going to fall away, and I’ll go flying into the vast darkness below. I think it stems from a recurring dream I have where I am driving, and the bridge I’m on is under construction, and before I can turn back, I go racing off the side. It gives me chills just to think about it!
Yikes! That is totally scary! Thank you so much again, Margee, for talking with us. Readers, stay tuned! Margee and I are putting together videos explaining why some of the scariest video games scare the sh** out of you!
Sound off below! Let Margee and me know what scares you so much you feel like curling up in a corner and dying!