Northeastern researchers experiment with fear at Newton haunted house

Posted on October 31, 2013

A squad of elite fear specialists will descend into the slightly musty basement of a Victorian house Friday night to take up haunting positions. Their preferred instrument of terror? Insights from the science of emotion.

The monsters and ghouls in this unusual haunted house are Northeastern University psychology researchers who spend their days generating emotional responses in the laboratory, to probe what’s happening in the brain when people experience visceral feelings.

People respond powerfully to uncertainty, research has shown, so in this haunted house the monsters hold still as long as possible to prolong the doubt about whether they are alive or not. Experiments have also shown that we pay close attention to the whites of people’s eyes, which can convey fear, said longtime skeleton and postdoctoral researcher Maria Gendron.

Barrett’s laboratory doesn’t specifically study how to scare people. In fact, human beings have a pretty good intuition for how to creep each other out: haunted houses, horror movies, and spooky stories haven’t needed scholars’ insights to elicit shrieks of fright. But the haunted house gives researchers an interesting way to generate and witness emotions outside the lab — sometimes reinforcing their own findings.

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Source material from Boston Globe