SCREAM: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear

By Margee Kerr

PublicAffairs. 274 pp. $26.99

Margee Kerr is a fear junkie. Roller coasters, haunted houses, heights, abandoned prisons, ghosts (well, maybe), even death — she confronts them with the relentlessness of a zombie Terminator.

But she’s also a sociologist, and she has taken on the most daunting task of all: writing a book about the science and history of fear that is enjoyable to read without also being, well, entirely unscary. With “Scream,” she has largely succeeded. It is hard to describe fear second-hand — you really have to be there — but Kerr mixes enough self-awareness and insight with her tales of fright to make the book campfire-worthy. “Scream” may not haunt you outright, but it stays with you, mainly by showing how the scariest place in the world is inside your own head.

Kerr’s love affair with fear began early. A ride on the Comet, Hershey Park’s oldest roller coaster, at age 11, and an encounter with a faux corpse at a Scottish highland fair in Maryland, and she was hooked. “I was even yelled at by my sixth grade teacher for bringing in a book on witchcraft that had a drawing of a naked woman inside,” Kerr recalls. “ ‘That’s inappropriate, Margee,’ she said.”

In “Scream,” Kerr is untroubled by such niceties as she travels the world in search of greater and greater fears. The author climbs aboard the steepest roller coaster in the world, the Takabisha at Fuji-Q Highland amusement park in Japan. The 3,300-foot, two-minute ride features a 121-degree loop in which the track, 141 feet above ground, curves back against itself. “As the car inched forward over the peak,” Kerr writes, “my legs started shaking uncontrollably, and I kept repeating ‘Oh my God.’ . . . Finally, the car tipped over the apex and dove toward the ground. I started screaming louder than I ever have before, as tears streamed down my face.”

(PublicAffairs)

Roller coasters are a unique sort of scare, Kerr explains. “Rather than being frightened because of their content, they take our ‘thinking’ brain off-line and deliver a quick and powerful jolt directly to our body . . .  triggering the chemical cascade collectively known as fight or flight, or the threat response — what most people just call ‘fear.’ ”

She repeatedly visits the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia — now run as a museum and haunted house, it was a pioneer in solitary confinement — first to experience the terror of time alone in a windowless, pitch-black, underground cell and later with a ghost-hunting team, in search of a paranormal experience. Armed with cameras, thermometers, electromagnetic field meters and tennis balls (you’ll never guess what they’re for; it’s creepy in a prosaic kind of way), the group stalks the prison at night. Kerr is soon “caught up in the energy, hovering behind them at arm’s length, observing intently. . . . I realized I was believing.” She describes the physical sensation of some entity moving through her, and although she knows it could have been just in her mind, “I wasn’t going to give up on my ghost story,” she decides.

[Book review: When your thoughts become fears and your fears become obsessions]

Kerr goes deep into the biological and scientific definitions of fear, rather than dismissing the experience solely as an emotion. Conceptually, fear spans various kinds of threats (acute, potential, sustained) and losses; physically, the amygdala, which processes threats deep within our brains, triggers instant reactions throughout the body, while other parts of the brain gather information for more critical, deliberative evaluation. “Every organism, from the fruit fly to the human, has a defense or threat response,” she reminds. “It’s one of our survival circuits.”

The stimulating effects of fear are often quite pleasurable, of course. “No wonder people are standing in line four hours for a two-minute thrill,” Kerr writes. For others, it can elicit sweating, chest pounding, dizziness, the feeling you’re about to die — a classic panic attack. Kerr experienced some of the latter sensations on the top of the 116-story CN Tower in Toronto, where guests can take the EdgeWalk beyond the observation deck, strolling around the tower on a five-foot-wide walkway, without guardrails, strapped to a harness, peering over the edge. Out on the walk, Kerr’s thoughts become clouded, waves of heat course through her, and she is barely able to move. Knowing what is happening to her body and mind — the cascade of chemicals released by her nervous system sends her body into overdrive — doesn’t really matter. “Good-bye, detached analytical sociologist, who is writing a book about fear,” she writes. “Hello, primal self.”

Kerr lapses into something of a formula at times, devoting each chapter to a scary experience, interspersed with scientific and sociological explanations, with a bit of autobiography thrown in. Some of her asides are particularly captivating, though, as when she reveals the sexism of America’s haunted-house industry; its likely future integration with theater, virtual-reality and video-game environments; and the historical treatment of monsters in film as a means to protect viewer sensibilities. “During the 1930s,” she explains, “the Hollywood Motion Picture Association decreed that every monster in a film must be destroyed by the end of the movie.”

Kerr brings her findings together in her work with ScareHouse, a haunted attraction in Pittsburgh to which she has long-standing ties. With colleagues there, she develops the “Basement,” in which thrill-seekers get a more immersive, one-on-one experience, such as an improvised interrogation, confinement in a coffin, or sessions with actors portraying the characters that surveys show scare people most: clowns, demons, nurses/doctors and witches. Visitors complete before-and-after surveys, and some even volunteer for subsequent brain scans. Though her data is preliminary, Kerr finds that people tend to enjoy engaging with thrilling, scary material and that many then feel more empowered to take on the real challenges in their lives.

Of course, the Basement offers a safe word you can yell if things get too intense and you want out; real life does not. And there’s an enormous difference between thrills we choose and fears we do not.

For all her focus on haunted houses, roller coasters and various scary destinations, Kerr’s emotions seem to run deepest in less-contrived circumstances. She recalls the unbridled anxiety of getting stuck in a Pittsburgh hospital elevator, for instance: “Being inside a sterile steel box for an indefinite period of time triggered serious panicking.” After taking a wrong turn in the streets of Bogota, Colombia, Kerr became terrified when she thought two men were following her; soon she began suffering nightmares and questioning whether to continue researching her book on fear.

And she visits the Aokigahara Jukai Forest in the foothills of Japan’s Mount Fuji, a beautiful yet grim destination known as Suicide Forest, a popular spot for Japanese to take their own lives. Sitting in a chair of rocks and trunks, tangled roots as armrests, Kerr contemplated how she might handle someday her final moments of life, how her family would react. But rather than feel despondent, she writes, “I felt a surge of love and compassion for everyone in my life.”

This lends credence to one of Kerr’s overarching conclusions: There are few fears as scary as the ones we create, ponder, consider in our minds. “Most Americans go to great lengths to escape the monsters that are our own thoughts and imaginations,” she writes, citing a University of Virginia study showing that people would rather hurt themselves through self-administered shocks rather than remain alone too long with their thoughts. “Isolation is like pulling the wheel from the mouse,” Kerr writes, “and with nothing to run on, we’re left to our own thoughts and creating our own stimulation, which can lead to vivid visual and auditory hallucinations.”

Even the most famous monsters are of our own making, Kerr reminds us, cautionary tales for human excess. Godzilla reveals the dangers of nuclear waste, the zombie apocalypse follows a breakdown of social order, and the machines rise up when we can’t manage technological breakthroughs. The real fear — the scariest character — is still us.

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