9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Haunted Houses

iStock.com/quavondo
iStock.com/quavondo

Margee Kerr leads a unique double life. By day, she teaches sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. By night, she works for ScareHouse, a renowned haunted house in Pittsburgh, where she analyzes data from customers and employees to make the attractions as terrifying as possible.

Kerr’s new book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear explores how fear works in our bodies and societies, and why many of us intentionally seek it out—especially at this time of year. We interviewed her and several other professionals working at haunted house attractions to find out more about how these places work, and why we love them like we do.

1. FEAR IS SUBJECT TO TRENDS.

Just like Halloween costumes, haunted house characterscycle in and out of popularity. Since 2008, Kerr has been asking ScareHouse visitors to rate which types of characters they find most frightening, whether it’s zombies, ghosts, witches, demons, serial killers, or other nightmares stalking the house's halls.

Kerr says that when she first started the interviews she saw a rising fear of zombies, a trend that has yet to entirely fade. But the characters scoring the highest on questionnaires this season are ones that seem plucked from recent American Horror Story storylines: circus sideshow oddities dripping with nostalgia, face-paint, and worse.

Kerr says movie serial killers like Jason and Freddy are still popular, even with kids who were born long after the franchises got their start. Other perennialfavoritesinclude creepy kids and creepy dolls. (Although people are only scared of porcelain dolls, Kerr notes, never stuffed animals or Raggedy Ann types. She blames that on the uncanny valley effect.) Ghosts, Kerr says,never seem to get to the very top of the rankings.

Amy Hollaman, Creative Director at Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary, says they’ve found that their scariest characters are the ones people can’t quite interpret. “We have a kind of cult that has taken over a ‘haunted machine shop,'" she explains. "They all have shaved heads, workers uniforms, and the same tattoo. It’s not a character that everyone is familiar with, so people are trying to constantly assess it—is this threatening? Can I trust this? We find that people think that’s very scary."

2. PROGRESSION IS KEY.

Well-designed haunted houses will take into account the entire flow of the experience, much like a symphony—or even just a good workout.

Several haunted house experts noted the importance of starting out strong. Hollaman says they used to have a slower warm-up sequence at the start of their experience, but visitors didn’t remember it. Today, they go straight for the high intensity, high-startle scares and then get further into the story.

Ben Armstrong, co-owner of NetherworldHaunted Housein Atlanta, Georgia,agrees:“You always want to hit them hard at the beginning and hard at the end."

Kerr confirms that starting out with high intensity is important. At ScareHouse, she says, the initial attractions are designed to get your body in a state of high arousal. They “activate the threat response and get the chemicals flowing,” she notes. “Startle scares”—think a zombie jumping out from the corner—accomplish this effectively. The startle response is hard to shut off, Kerr says, and it gets you into high-alert mode.

ScareHouse, like other haunted houses, employs a series of peaks and valleys as visitors wander through the attraction. Their final room ends on a comedic note, one that tries to leave visitors “laughing, pumped-up, and excited.” There'salso acool-down at the end, where visitors check out their belongings, and staff ask how they’re doing. But Kerr notes that not all haunted houses pay attention to the winding-down part of experience. The ones that do tend to be more business-oriented—they’re concerned about the liability issues of sending terrified people off into the night.

3. SOME OF THE CHEAPEST TRICKS ARE THE MOST EFFECTIVE.

“There are a lot of old-school hack tricks that haunters discovered and now science is confirming,” Kerr says.

Many of these have to do with altering visitors’ sense of space and time. Strobe lights induce what Kerr calls "a feeling of depersonalization" by messing with our proprioception—our sense of our own bodies and movement—and our ability to locate ourselves visually from one moment to the next. Blackout rooms also interfere with our ability to orient ourselves, which triggers a fear response.

Other tricks involve subtle movements. At ScareHouse, some of the walls are on springs and move when you lean against them—not enough to make visitors fall and hurt themselves, Kerr says, but enough to make you question what just happened. Golf balls wedged tightly underneath the floors are another classic trick, since they make the ground move just enough to be alarming. "If you put the golf balls really close together in a very tight space and then put a board on top of it (also secured), so there is only about a half an inch worth of movement, it creates just enough disorientation to put you off balance (and set up you for the next scare), but not enough to actually make you fall," Kerr explains.

Still, startles remain one of the most effective tools. “Startles might be cheap, but they’re required to keep that high level of arousal,” Kerr says. “You can have great sets, but you need to have these fundamental things in your pocket to create that feeling of chaos. Otherwise you’re just walking through really cool sets.”

4. DON’T GET TOO COMFORTABLE.

“I always look for ways to establish a pattern or rhythm,”Elizabeth Harper, an LA-based lighting designer who’s worked on several horror-themed attractions, says. “If you subvert the pattern, the audience has a moment of relief where they feel like they've escaped unscathed—and that's your opportunity to really scare them.”

It's a pattern that's often used in horror movies. “The killer's theme music will prime you to get scared," she explains. "Then one time it turns out to be something normal—it was only the wind or a cat ... you can bet that right after that moment of relief they're going to unleash something terrifying.”

Hollaman uses similar tactics in what she calls her “scareography”—the choreography of a scare. “It’s a sequence of steps, like with a dance move,” she explains, and one that incorporates both physical movements and dialogue. The principles of Hollaman’s scareography includes first scanning the customer and getting a read on their body language, which can determine the sequence or the tempo of what happens next. The second step often involves a distraction, often with a prop.

“For instance, in the morgue, visitors see a rib cage slowly lifting up,” she explains. “While they’re turned and looking at that, it allows the actors to slowly creep out of their scare pockets and slide right to the middle of the group.” That’s when the real scare happens.

“We’re using the principles of redirection,” she notes. "The scare isn’t where you expect it to be.”

5. THAT SMELL MIGHT JUST BE ANIMAL URINE.

Entire companies are devoted to designing haunted house smellscapes, withthe scent of rotting corpses a particularly popular choice.

ScareHouse has used a variety of scents, Kerr says, but this year there’s a boar’s urine smell in a haunt designed to look like a butcher room. “It’s awful, but in a way that isn’t completely repulsive,” Kerr says.

Finding the right balance between scary and just plain disgusting is important when it comes to smells. “Something like bad breath is just going to make people disengage and move away," Kerr says. "But there’s other smells that are weird and gross, yet that don’t take you out of the experience.” Boars’ urine seems to fit the bill, for some reason—perhaps because most of us have never encountered it before and don’t have a script for how to deal with it, Kerr says.

Harper, however, says she’s not a fan of using smell in a haunted house, and “not just because the smell gets in your clothes and hair if you're working all night.” She says the unfamiliar smells can actually take people out of the moment. “Unlike sound or lights or actors, you can't hit someone with a smell and make it disappear, so it overstays its welcome. People start wondering how we did that, which is the least scary thought in the world.”

6. THE SCARES MAY CHANGE ACCORDING TO YOUR RESPONSE.

At ScareHouse, “if a group comes in that’s not jumping at all, the actors will abandon any dialogue and go right to startle scares,” Kerr says. In other words, plot goes out the window, while the basic physiological triggers come back into play.

On the other hand, if people who seem too scared, the actors will take it in a more comedic direction. Armstrong at Netherworld agrees: “If someone is too scared we train our actors to back off … We want them to have nightmares for a week, not the rest of their lives!”

According to general manager D. Brandon LeJeune, the goal at House of Torment in Austin is "to scare first and foremost, but when that doesn't work out, we fall back to entertaining. Groups are instructed before entering the attraction that if they are too scared to continue, they can inform a monster and they will be escorted out. This happens on a very regular basis.”

Hollaman, however, says her actors aren’t supposed to improv very much. They might have to make some of their scares shorter or longer, but basically need to stick to the script.

7. SIMPLE IS BETTER.

Not every scary setup works. Around 2009, ScareHouse created a haunted house built around a detailed universe with good soldiers fighting an evil overlord. Visitors were supposed to be able to choose sides, but people didn’t get it.

“The complexity of the story didn’t allow people to go into primal, no-thinking scare mode. That was a lesson in how simple is better—narrative thread good, narrative cobwebs bad,” Kerr says. Or as Harper puts it, “a little bit of narrative goes a long way."

8. THEY PRODUCE A NATURAL HIGH.

Kerr says there can be surprising benefits to visiting a haunted house. For some, they induce a kind of natural high. “The adrenaline, the dopamine, the endorphins that course through your body—the scary material is just a trigger for that kind of response with some people,” Kerr says.

Others seem to enjoy haunted houses because they genuinely like scary material. “Some people have a positive response to a negative picture,” Kerr explains, “and there’s not necessarily a pathology behind that.” The reasons behind such responses are complex. “It could be because some people have linked scary stuff with the feel-good endorphins, so the negative image takes on a positive feeling.”

And some people, like Kerr herself, go to haunted houses as a way to enforce feelings of competency. Going through a set of thrilling experiences can be a safe way to challenge oneself and emerge feeling great. “It’s a confidence boost,” Kerr says. She actively seeks out safe-but-scary experiences on days when she’s feeling low.

9. THEY MAY GET US CLOSER TO OUR ANCESTORS.

Humans evolved in environments in which they were facing constant physical threat. For a lot of us, life is significantly more cushy now. That could mean we’re missing out on dangerous but potentially exhilarating experiences our ancestors were more familiar with, whether that’s running from a bear or fighting a battle.

“For many Americans, their emotional expressions on a day-to-day basis are very narrow,” Kerr says. “We’re not having many highs or lows. We’re living a more restricted emotional life. I think that’s why we go out to scary movies and haunted houses—we evolved to have this massive range of emotional experiences, and we still want them." In other words, haunted houses might just be a way to recapture the sense of thrill our foremothers and forefathers knew—but instead of ending up as a snack for a wild animal, we can go off laughing into the night.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Secrets of Epidemiologists

Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
metamorworks/iStock via Getty Images

Unless you know an epidemiologist or are one yourself, those “disease detectives” might not have occupied a very large portion of your brain. Last year, that is. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic at the top of mind—and at the top of so many headlines—there’s a good chance you’re at least aware that epidemiologists study diseases.

To be more specific, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines epidemiology as “the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events in specified populations, and the application of this study to the control of health problems.” So what exactly does this mean? Mental Floss spoke with a few epidemiologists to shed light on what they do, how they do it, and which germ-friendly foods they avoid at the buffet.

1. People often mistake epidemiologists for skin doctors.

Since the word epidemiologist sounds like it might have something to do with epidermis (the outer layer of skin), people often think epidemiology is some offshoot of dermatology. At least, until the coronavirus pandemic.

“Prior to that, no one knew what I did. Everyone was like ‘Oh you’re an epidemiologist—do you work with skin?’” Sarah Perramant, an epidemiologist at the Passaic County Department of Health Services in New Jersey, tells Mental Floss. “I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time I got asked if I work with dermatologists.”

2. Epidemiologists don’t discover a new disease every day.

Though some epidemiologists do look for unknown diseases—certain zoonotic epidemiologists, for example, surveil wildlife for animal pathogens that might jump to humans—most are dealing with diseases that we’re already familiar with. So what do they do every day? It varies … a lot.

Epidemiologists who work at academic or research institutions undertake research projects that help determine how a disease spreads, which behaviors put you at risk for it, and other unknowns about anything from common colds to cancer. But it’s not just about devising experiments and studying patient data.

“I like to tell my friends and family that my job is about four different jobs in one,” Dr. Lauren McCullough, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, tells Mental Floss.

Writing, she says, is “the most important part.” It includes requesting grants, devising lectures and assignments, grading her students’ work, writing about her research, and more. She also sits on admissions committees, reviews other epidemiologists’ studies, and oversees the many people—project managers, data analysts, technicians, trainees, etc.—working on her own research projects.

Those who work in the public health sphere are often monitoring local outbreaks of diseases like the flu, Lyme disease, salmonellosis, measles, and more. If you test positive for a nationally notifiable disease (any of about 120 diseases that could cause a public health issue), the CDC or your state health department sends your electronic lab report to the epidemiologist in your area, who’s responsible for contacting you, finding out how you got sick, and telling local officials what steps to take in order to prevent it from causing an outbreak.

3. Epidemiologists have to make some uncomfortable phone calls.

At least the person on the other end can't see your expression of consternation.Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Epidemiologists sometimes have to ask pretty personal questions about drug use and sexual activity when trying to figure out how someone got infected, and not everyone is happy to answer them. “I’ve gotten hung up on many a time,” Dr. Krys Johnson, an assistant professor in Temple University’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics, tells Mental Floss.

Some simply aren’t willing to accept that they might have been exposed to a disease without knowing it. After several employees at a certain company tested positive for COVID-19, for example, Perramant started calling the rest of the workers to tell them to go into quarantine; this way, she could prevent sick people who weren't yet showing symptoms from spreading the disease without knowing it. But not everybody was open to her advice. “They would just swear up and down, ‘I haven’t been in touch with anybody who’s positive, please don’t call me again,’” Perramant says.

But there are plenty of cooperative people, too, especially victims of foodborne or diarrheal illnesses. “They really want to know where they got sick because they’re so miserable that they never, ever want to deal with that again,” Johnson explains. Parents of sick kids are also generally forthcoming, since they want to keep their kids healthy in the future. And then there are those who don’t have any problem spilling their secrets to a stranger.

“There was one woman who was very memorable,” Johnson says. “I called her about her Hepatitis C, and she was like, ‘Oh, honey, I did drugs back in the ’80s. That’s where I got my Hepatitis C. I pop positive every time!’”

4. Epidemiologists deal with a lot of rejection.

Public health epidemiologists have to learn to just shrug off all the rude tones and dial tones, and epidemiologists in academic settings need thick skin for different reasons.

“There’s just a lot of rejection,” McCullough says. “‘That idea isn’t good enough; this paper isn’t good enough; you’re not good enough.’ That is just a resounding thing. There’s a high bar for science; there’s a high bar for federal funding; and it takes a lot to cross that bar. So in the academic setting at these top-tier institutions, you really just have to have a thick skin.”

5. Just because epidemiologists' guidelines change doesn't mean they're wrong.

Sometimes, McCullough explains, the story of a disease can change over the course of one study. When you look at the first 100 people in a 10,000-person study, you’ll see one story emerge. By the time you’ve seen 1000 people, that story looks different. And after you’ve seen the data from all 10,000 people, the original story might not be accurate at all.

Usually, epidemiologists can complete the whole study of a disease and draw conclusions without the world clamoring for half-baked answers. But with a brand-new, highly infectious disease like COVID-19, epidemiologists don’t have that luxury. As they’ve learned more about how the pathogens spread, how long they can survive on surfaces, and other factors, they’ve changed their recommendations for safety precautions. Everyone else in the world of epidemiology expected this to happen, but the general public did not.

“If we say something this week that contradicts what we said last week, it’s not that we were wrong,” Johnson says. “It’s that we learned something between those two time points.”

6. Being an epidemiologist would be easier if people kept better track of their behavior.

Often, people omit vital information about how they got exposed to an illness because they just don’t remember all the details. You could easily recall devouring a few slices of the decadent chocolate cake your mom baked for your birthday last Friday, but you might not be able to name every bite of food you ate on a random Thursday three weeks ago.

“People aren’t telling us the whole truth, but it’s not that they’re being intentionally obtuse,” Johnson explains. “With recall bias, unless there’s a reason for us to really remember, we’re not going to remember everything we actually ate.”

This has made it especially difficult to trace an aerosolized disease like COVID-19.

“All my friends going into the Fourth of July were like, ‘Should we have a get-together?’” Perramant says. “And I said, ‘You can have people over, but you better take an attendance list. You better have a little spreadsheet on Google Drive that has every person’s name and their phone number, so that when one person tests positive and gets sick this week, when I call you, you will be able to give me that information like that.’”

7. Epidemiologists have reason to be wary of buffets, cruise ships, mayonnaise, and cubed ham.

It's all fun and games until someone eats warm egg salad.Tim Meyer, Unsplash

Infectious disease epidemiologists may have accepted that germs are a part of life, but they also know where those germs like to congregate.

“I don’t go to buffets, I have never been on a cruise ship and I don’t intend to, I’m super conscientious when I fly,” Johnson says. “And I’m really aware of whenever mayonnaise-based things are put out at family functions. If you’re ever at a potluck and people come down sick, the first thing people say [they ate] is potato salad or egg salad, because mayonnaise can spoil so quickly.”

“[Cubed ham] is one particular microbe’s very favorite thing to multiply on, so if you’re gonna have ham, make it a whole ham,” she says.

8. Teaching people is a really rewarding part of being an epidemiologist.

In addition to actually leading lectures in the classroom, academic epidemiologists also work extremely closely with their students on research projects; McCullough estimates that she’s in contact with hers at least once a day when they’re collaborating on a study.

“To work with someone so closely, and to watch them progress as a scientist and as a person, and then to have to let them go and send them out into the world, I find that very rewarding,” McCullough says of her trainees. “As a scientist in an academic institution, there’s not a whole lot of immediate gratification. Our papers get rejected, our grants don’t get funded, but the trainees are always a source of immediate gratification for me, so I hold them close to my heart.”

Epidemiologists in other spheres have teaching opportunities, too. When a community experiences a disease outbreak, public health epidemiologists like Perramant are responsible for helping the general public understand what they can do to prevent the spread.

“I like to teach kids about infectious disease and infection prevention for what’s relevant to them. We’ve had a couple of large outbreaks at summer camps, and last summer I put together a training for camp counselors,” Perramant says. “That’s always a part of my job that I really love.”

9. Epidemiologists have a unique understanding of racial disparities.

At this point, it's exceptionally clear that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting people of color in the U.S. They're more likely to be exposed to it, they have less access to testing, and the preexisting conditions that place them at a higher risk can be the result of systemic racism. When these trends started to become apparent, McCullough got flooded with phone calls asking why. Her answer? This isn’t new. As she’s seen in her work as a breast cancer researcher, Black women are more likely to die of that disease than their white counterparts, and similar health disparities exist across the board.

McCullough explains that the general public is finally realizing what epidemiologists already knew: That poor disease outcomes in minority, low-income, and rural populations aren’t because of anything those people are doing on an individual level. Instead, it’s a result of systemic issues that keep them from leading financially comfortable, healthy lifestyles with access to healthcare and other resources.

“It’s not just COVID—it’s almost every single chronic and infection ailment that’s out there,” McCullough explains. “So this is a real opportunity for people to step back and take an assessment of where we are in terms of our healthcare system, and what we’re doing so that everybody has equitable outcomes. Because people shouldn’t die just because they live in a rural area, or just because they’re poor, or just because they’re Black or Hispanic.”

10. They've had to deal with a lot of “armchair epidemiologists” lately.

Until this year, epidemiologists had to suffer through people mistaking them for dermatologists. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, people finally know at least a little about their jobs. In fact, people are so confident in their newfound epidemiological knowledge that many are fancying themselves experts on the subject.

“At the beginning of 2020, there were like 500 epidemiologists, and now there are about 5 million. Everybody thinks they’re an epidemiologist,” McCullough says. “There’s a science to it, and it’s a science that requires training. We went to school for a really long time to be doctorally trained epidemiologists.”

It’s not just about advanced degrees, either. Beyond that, you need years of firsthand experience to grasp all the nuances of understanding methods, interpreting data, translating your findings into recommendations for the general public, and so much more. In short, you can’t just decide you’re an epidemiologist.

Perramant has her own analogy for the recent influx of self-proclaimed epidemiologists: “It’s like armchair psychology. Poolside epidemiology now is a thing.”