By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
“Extreme haunted house” McKamey Manor is facing a shutdown petition, NBC News reported. The attraction requires would-be visitors to sign a 40-page liability waiver and watch a two-hour video of other participants quitting the attraction partway through. Where is the line drawn in “fear for fun?”
Rumors about McKamey Manor have flooded the internet in recent weeks. Videos on the company’s website appear to show visitors having large drills placed into their mouths and power turned on, being force-fed by employees, and more. Meanwhile, the petition itself alleges that visitors are leaving with broken bones, being fed hallucinogens, being injected with unknown substances, and even losing consciousness and being thrown out. McKamey Manor seems to be a very far cry from traditional theme park “haunted houses,” but the story still begs the question of how and why we enjoy a good old-fashioned scare in the first place.
Living is an exhausting task for our brains. “Our primary motivation is survival, basically ensuring we maintain balance or homeostasis—that we’re hydrated, fed, and safe,” said Dr. Margee Kerr, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh. “This balancing act takes a lot of work, so it’s evolutionarily advantageous to adapt in ways that conserve energy.”
Dr. Kerr said that the brain alone uses 20 percent of our body’s total energy resources. The brain tries to make up for this by delegating tasks to other body parts to be done automatically, such as digesting food, leaving it enough energy to prioritize and focus on other things that deserve our attention and preserve our survival.
“This is where our threat response system steps in—to make sure we don’t miss anything that might hurt us,” she said. “Our brain is constantly receiving and processing the importance of thousands of messages. Any message that carries even a hint of threat is elevated and automatically your body begins preparing by reprioritizing where your energy is going—specifically towards making you strong or fast.”
This very exhausting process is the beginning of what is commonly known as “the fight or flight response.” And those chemicals remain shortly after your reasoning skills catch up with instinct and sound the all-clear.
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Since the brain prioritizes threats from which to escape, Dr. Kerr said that we’ve evolved something called a “negativity bias.”
“In everyday life we tend to look at and focus on content that is negative more quickly, and for longer time frames, compared to positive content,” she said. “It’s a kind of attraction/repulsion dynamic—we’re attracted to things that are threatening, and that we don’t understand or are new. We have to learn as much as we can in order to protect ourselves. This dynamic has served purveyors of oddities like P. T. Barnum, the horror entertainment industry, and the true crime genre very well.”
Negativity bias is at least partly responsible for our attraction to gross things, haunted houses, and scary movies. However, it also explains another phenomenon many of us know all too well.
“[Negativity bias] explains our impulse to look at the car crash as we pass by when (a) we know it’s not safe and (b) we know it may be gruesome,” Dr. Kerr said. “This also explains the old saying, ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ Media outlets have learned that the best way to capture attention is through negative, emotionally-charged messages.”
But before we take up our torches and pitchforks against news outlets, Dr. Kerr pointed out that politicians, corporations, and even non-profit companies do the same thing.
Here’s hoping they don’t decide to resort to power drills.
Dr. Margee Kerr contributed to this article. Dr. Kerr is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of SCREAM: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. She earned a B.A. in sociology from Hollins University and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pittsburgh.