Psychology professor gives different perspective on why people get scared

With Halloween right around the corner, attending haunted houses has become a popular way to pass the time.

The Clarion talked with Psychology professor Mary Wells about some of the theories that could explain why people want to scare themselves around this time of year, while also taking a look at why people take the time to scare themselves, including what humans tend to classify as scary and how it relates Middletown’s Land of Illusion.

Land of Illusion features five different themed haunted houses, as well as a Zombie Sniper Patrol ride.

Throughout the haunted houses, chainsaws, clowns, Egyptian pharaohs and people dressed up in costumes intended to scare can be found.

Among the haunted houses is the Temple of Terror, where you travel through dark passageways and get scared by the characters jumping out at you. You also spend some time in an elevator wondering if you will get out safely. The props around the area involving snakes and spiders are meant to scare, and do a good job.

Another attraction is the Killer Klowns. According to, the clowns are raving lunatics and demented fools. You get a feel for that when you enter this attraction and spend your time being tormented by the clowns throughout. If you get stuck in the maze, watch out — you will be made fun of and even told that you may not get out alive.

The Middletown Haunted Trail is a long journey through the dark that involves being chased by chainsaws and having people sneak up behind you in an attempt to scare you to death. Make sure if you are frightened, not to scream and stray to a corner for protection, that is when they like to come around the most.

Dr. Psycho’s Haunted Estate is as it claims… Psycho. The feeling you get when you enter is very creepy and strange. Throughout the estate, the people inside are sure to make you run toward the exit, as they show you around the horror and threaten to have you killed if you tell anyone about what you have seen.

According to, The Voodoo Bayou is set around a family who was killed for allegedly practicing black magic. The family creeps inside and when you enter, you will be tormented and teased with the black magic they are known for.

New to the Land of Illusion this year is the Zombie Sniper Patrol. During the patrol, you ride in a U.S. Army cargo truck through the woods and shoot at zombies with paintball guns that are mounted to the side of the truck. When prompted by the guides, you are to shoot the zombies on sight. The zombies hide behind abandoned cars, ride four —wheelers and sneak out from behind trees. It is a thrilling experience and one that you are sure to have fun on.

Some attendees, however, may find some Halloween themes are scarier than others. According to Wells, psychology may offer a reason for that.

Wells said the level of stimulation that each individual has can range from low to high.

“We all have this optimal level of arousal that we like to maintain in our bodies — if we don’t have enough arousal or stimulation, then we get bored and we are unhappy,” she said. “Or if it’s too high, we’re uncomfortable — we can’t think, we can’t be productive, because the level of stimulation is way too high.”

Wells said because people try to reach an optimal and balanced level of arousal, they will participate in different activities in order to obtain it. One activity could be to attend haunted houses.

“One of the ways would be to scare ourselves with things like haunted houses or scary movies,” she said. “Scaring yourself in terms of Halloween and this time of year, you could think of as another way to kind of safely raise those levels of arousal.”

Wells also said that haunted houses could be used as a way to bring couples closer together.

“There’s some notion that you find people more attractive when you’re afraid,” she said. “For all we know, we’ve been using this unconsciously.”

As far as what people are afraid of, Wells said that it could vary depending on the individual and ancestry, which could explain why some people are afraid of the spiders and snakes that are common around this time of year.

“If we think about how people develop phobias, its kind of that classically conditioned fear where you learn stimulus response,” she said. “Maybe from an evolutionary point of view our ancestors probably spent a lot more time than us out in an environment where spiders and snakes presented a risk.”

Wells also said that if you are going to a haunted house or a scary movie, you are going for the purpose of scaring yourself.

“If you’re going to a scary movie, if you’re going to a haunted house you really are going to scare yourself,” she said. “How you respond to that or how you perceive that can vary from person to person.”

As you organize your Halloween plans, bear in mind the psychological prospect of fear. Check page2 for more information on local haunted houses.

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