The psychology behind scary spaces

A well designed haunted house is guaranteed to get a few good screams out most brave visitors. But what about the popular Hallowe’en haunt makes us vulnerable to fear? We visited Brantford’s Smitty’s Haunted Sanatorium to find out.

Psychologist, Colin Ellard, studies the psychology of spaces and says most of us are already in a scare-ready mindset when we visit a haunted house. That sets us on edge and activates our anxiety, making us more vulnerable to the scares inside.

That’s where the design experts come in. Gord Worden is one of the designers at Smitty’s and says his team creates a winding structure that plays to our nerves, “Where you have to file through the element of darkness and a little bit deeper concepts, it generates a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety.” Ellard says they’re on the right track. Narrow hallways, covered doors and dark curtains add a sense of mystery to the venue, creating anxiety over what lies behind the next bend. He says the feeling of disorientation adds to our fear, “We lose our bearings. We don’t understand where we are in the larger space and so we’re giving over control to whoever has designed the space.”

That vulnerability triggers us to scan our surroundings constantly. Our eyes tend to gravitate toward lights and movement. Tom McArthur, another member of the Sanatorium team, says they use that principle for shock value, “We use the distractions to time it so the actors have time to see when they want to jump out at you the best so you won’t be expecting it.”

Ellard says an effective haunted house is a full body experience. When we’re forced to crouch down to avoid low hanging cobwebs, our body is reminded of a defensive position and we experience the symptoms we’d feel if we were under attack. Similarly, string or something brushing against our skin makes us feel like our other defence mechanisms have been breached and our anxiety is heightened even further.

Ellard says the final key to a scary space is the ebb and flow of fearful elements. When visitors think their in a safe stretch, they let their guard down, which is a perfect opportunity for a big scare.