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book review

Margee Kerr, ScareHouseRachellynn Schoen

The question of why, exactly, people like to be frightened or shocked or exposed to things that are ostensibly unpleasant is a curious one. It hangs over horror fiction (literature, films, video games, TV shows, etc.) in a way that seems unique to the genre. Nobody would wonder why we like to watch comedy movies or read cheesy romance novels. The answer to such questions would seem pre-theoretically self-evident: We like to laugh and to be titillated by forbidden romance, swarthy highs seas eroticism and other Harlequin fodder.

In the case of horror/fear/terror, the answers aren't so obvious. How exactly do we derive pleasure from the unpleasant? For Stephen King, horror fiction works as a "safety valve" for people blessed (or cursed) with overactive imaginations. "They are a kind of dreaming awake," he writes in the footnote to the 2010 edition of his non-fiction book Danse Macabre, "and when a movie about ordinary lives skews off into some blood-soaked nightmare, we're able to let off the pressure that might otherwise build up until it blows us sky-high."

Similar theories and inquiries have preoccupied academics working in the field that can be loosely (and a bit dorkily) called "the philosophy of horror." In his book The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart, writer Noel Carroll uses the framework of cognitive psychology to answer that very question. Here he sums up the paradox at the heart of a horror, in a passage I quote extensively only because it's so good.

"In the ordinary course of affairs," Carroll writes, "people shun what disgusts them. Being repulsed by something that one finds to be loathsome and impure is an unpleasant experience. We do not, for example, attempt to add some pleasure to a boring afternoon by opening the lid of a steamy trash can in order to savor its unwholesome stew of broken bits of meat, moldering fruits and vegetables, and noxious, unrecognizable clumps, riven thoroughly by all manner of crawling things. And, ordinarily, checking out hospital waste bags is not our idea of a good time."

Margee Kerr's Scream is another book about what we find scary and why we enjoy being horrified or otherwise unnerved. It's another to attempt to open that steamy trash can lid; to tear into the festering bag of hospital waste. A sociologist and employee of a Pittsburgh haunted house attraction, Kerr wants to "understand fear from the inside out."

Scream is subtitled Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. Yet it's never really convincing that Kerr even knows what "science" is. The bulk of her book is made up of first-person accounts of her journeys through haunted houses, locked away in abandoned mental hospitals or squealing through one or another thrilling attraction(including vertiginous roller coasters at a Japanese amusement parks and the CN Tower's EdgeWalk in Toronto). But diarizing such experiences isn't science, any more than writing about the experience of baking a cake – the warmth of the oven, the smell wafting through your kitchen, the anticipation of taking that first bite of cake-y deliciousness – would amount to a recipe for baking a cake.

Sure, she scatters her overlong journal entries with various scientific bric-a-brac about threat responses and interoception, which she describes as "our awareness of our physical body." But it's the kind of trite pop science that you could lift wholesale from Wikipedia and wouldn't seem to require a post-doctorate degree to happen upon.

And that's another thing: Kerr is obsessed with her role as a sociologist, as if it's the most noble calling in the world. But where most sociologists use their mix of empirical data and critical analysis to, say, help influence public policy, Kerr's endgame seems to be building a more effectively terrifying haunted house. It's not a shabby goal, by any means. But one wonders if it's worth slogging through six or seven years of education in pursuit of cooking up a better way to say, "Boo!"

It's not until the last stretch of Scream that Kerr really digs into anything resembling hard data. In a chapter called "Building the Basement," Kerr teams up with Greg Siegle, a professor of psychiatry specializing in "the field of emotional research." Siegle – who, Kerr notes, sports a "hipster beard," which is apparently something different from just a plain, old-fashioned, meat-and-potatoes beard – measures his subject's brainwaves, tests her startle reflex and subjects her to a number of tests meant to measure her responses to fear and shock.

Following the battery of trials, some 215 pages into her book, Kerr considers the prospect of collecting "real data" on the subject of fear. What? Wasn't this the whole point of the book and of Kerr-the-fearless-sociologist's investigation?

Even Kerr's conclusion is more of a premise, acknowledged by the author as little more than a "theory."

"When we push ourselves to the extreme," she writes, "the every day things that used to bother us don't seem like that big of a deal any more." Like most sociological theories, Kerr's idea that horror works to rejig our tolerance for stress and unpleasantness has a certain "no duh" quality, about as intellectually novel as positing something like, "We like to eat cake because cake is cake-y and delicious."

Instead of engaging with the broader academic literature on the appeal of horror (or, as scholar Isabel Cristina Pinedo calls it, "recreational terror"), Kerr seems all too content to skim over the surfaces of her own experiences with the terrifying, spooky, chilling, macabre, et cetra. At the risk of casting undue aspersions on the author, Scream tell us very little that's very interesting about the science of fear and a whole lot more about how an author can wantonly blow a book advance riding Japanese roller coasters.