DeKALB – It was pitch black for about five minutes at the Egyptian Theatre’s haunted house when a lost Michelle Mears bumped into her biggest fear: clowns.
“I literally have ‘clownaphobia,’” she said. “I was grabbing onto this lady in front of me, and I didn’t even know her.”
Mears voluntarily puts herself into these situations for the thrill of it, and there is some science behind how scared ghoulish thrills make individuals react. Those who study how the brain reacts to fear say the mind is often trained to assess a fearful situation and people react to a fearful situation based on how they are able to regulate their emotions.
Even for people who are easily fearful of haunted houses, the best way to train the brain to be less scared is to practice by going to haunted houses more often, said David Zald, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University. Zald has studied combinations of brain areas involved in fear and whether there is preferential detection of fearful stimuli.
What he has found is the amygdala, the region of the brain that controls emotions, is essential for having a learned context to control the extent to which people are scared.
For example, the extent to which someone is startled by another person dropping a book can be manipulated, just like how someone can train themselves to be less scared at a haunted house, Zald said.
“When you go to a haunted house, you know it’s make believe,” Zald said. “In the back of your mind, you’re able to say, ‘This should be OK.’
“That’s important … that context means everything.”
Zald said haunted houses can also make someone feel superior or have a higher sense of confidence when they successfully complete it with friends. That was how Mike Bruce, 22, of Crystal Lake felt after he walked through the Amenti Haunted House.
Bruce said his senses also were heightened while at the haunted house. He still remembers a man chasing him with a fake chain saw and an actress who wanted him to stay at her birthday party.
“For whatever reason, it’s fun to not have the control and put yourself in an environment where it’s safe or it’s not,” Bruce said. “There’s something about not having that control and [having] all that scary stuff thrown at you.”
Those who do the scaring also get a thrill out of their role at a haunted house, said Megan Smith, a Sycamore mother and scare actress at Jonamac Orchard’s Haunted Corn Maze, 19412 Shabbona Road in Malta.
Smith said she has been a scarer for six years, starting out as a volunteer at the Amenti Haunted House. She sometimes plays a zombie character at the Haunted Corn Maze, painting her face in shades of gray, green, black and brown while squirting fake blood all over her mouth.
“It just makes me happy. It completes me,” said Smith, whose favorite holiday is Halloween.
Since Smith works as a scarer, she said that when she goes to haunted houses as a guest, she ends up studying the actors instead of being fearful.
“Sometimes I get scared at other haunted houses,” she said. “Other times, my mind takes over and it tells me, ‘You do that for a living too. It’s all fake.’ I try to turn that off to get the excitement.”