The Boston Globe:
NEWTON — A squad of elite fear specialists will descend into the slightly musty basement of a Victorian house Friday night to take up haunting positions. Their preferred instrument of terror? Insights from the science of emotion.
The monsters and ghouls in this unusual haunted house are Northeastern University psychology researchers who spend their days generating emotional responses in the laboratory, to probe what’s happening in the brain when people experience visceral feelings.
The haunted house experience of frightening children and adults — and observing their reactions — has helped the masked scientists sharpen ideas for research questions to test back in the laboratory.
People respond powerfully to uncertainty, research has shown, so in this haunted house the monsters hold still as long as possible to prolong the doubt about whether they are alive or not. Experiments have also shown that we pay close attention to the whites of people’s eyes, which can convey fear, said longtime skeleton and postdoctoral researcher Maria Gendron.
Like any experiment, the haunting has been tweaked since psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett started the tradition at her home nine years ago, at the suggestion of her now-teenage daughter, Sophia.
“We used to do a lot more conventional things, like jumping out at people, loud noises, things like that — things that would startle people,” Barrett said.
They refined their approach based on insights from neuroscience and psychology: “You have to get the nervous system into a state of arousal in order to have the maximum effect when you deliver a fearful stimulus, and so that’s pretty much what we’ve learned to do,” she said.
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