Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Why haunted houses work: It's all about the right kind of fear

Bulent Gurpinar/Thinkstock

Normally, you wouldn't willingly put yourself in situations that make your skin crawl. So why pay money to have others scare the living daylights out of you?

According to the BBC, commercial haunted houses emerged in the 1970s as charity events and have since expanded into a $500-million (U.S.) industry.

As anyone who's ever visited one knows, they're not actually haunted, and usually not even real houses. Rather, they're amusement facilities filled with robotic ghouls, creepy sound effects, and actors in gruesome costumes โ€“ hardly anything that would provoke genuine terror.

Story continues below advertisement

So what's the appeal? One psychologist tells the BBC it's all about providing the right kind of fear.

"It is very important to experience emotion and the most powerful emotion you have โ€“ the one that leads to the greatest arousal โ€“ is a feeling of fear," Dr. Christian Grillon of the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland told the broadcaster. "But the thing that is most scary to us is unpredictability. When you don't know when something bad is going to happen."

He explains that haunted houses allow people to experience strong emotions "in the context of safety." In spite of being chased around by actors dressed as vampires and axe-murderers, visitors feel they still are in control.

For this reason, he suggests, haunted houses are more popular when the economy is uncertain. "A lot of people are not too in control of their life at the moment. This offers a release. It is much less scary than going to work and not knowing if you're going to be fired."

What's the scariest situation you've put yourself in?

Report an error
About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.