Scientifically Scary

Just when you thought you were safe from the ghoulish ghosts of Halloween until next year, here comes emotion researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett with another dose of fright! Feldman Barrett, an APS Fellow, uses her knowledge of emotion in an annual haunted house charity fundraiser she and her family have put on in their basement for the last five years. With postdocs, RAs, and graduate students dressed up as skeletons and monsters, Feldman Barrett and her creepy colleagues “use body postures, changes in eye contact, the timing of noises, and movements to increase startle,” she reports.

Feldman Barrett related one particularly scary, science-based fright: “Many Halloween masks have crazy looking eyes in them. For some masks, we cut the eyes out, so that the human eyes of the wearer can be seen. Based on a paper by Paul Whalen published in Science, we know that sclera (the whites of the eyes) activates the amgydala. The amygdala, while not the brain locus of fear, is one of the brain structures that helps to produce a state of vigilance. It responds to uncertainty, signals other parts of the brain to pay attention, and puts the body on edge to respond. So, by opening the eyes wide, and showing more sclera, it is possible to grab someone’s attention and increase their arousal without ever moving. This sets the stage for a scary event.

In one part of our haunted house, we have two grad students sit next to each other wearing skeleton masks. They don’t move. But one opens her eyes wide (otherwise remaining very still), and starts to track a visitor to the haunted house. She makes eye contact with the visitor. This grabs the attention of the visitor, who is walking towards the two skeletons. But the two skeletons are sitting very still throughout, and in the darkish basement, it is not even clear if they are real or not. So ambiguity, vigilance, and eye contact — and the visitor is on edge. Everything remains still for a 5-10 seconds, and then both skeletons jump out at the visitor. There are usually lots of screams.”

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