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Dead or alive? Researchers use uncertainty to scare

A wide-eyed skeleton statue perched on a table in the corner of a dank stone-walled basement follows visitors with its eyes. They aren’t sure if it’s a plastic dummy or a human, until the ghoul suddenly lunges from its post and claws the air as the innocents scurry into the next room of a haunted house designed by University Distinguished Professor of Psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett.

For nine years now, Barrett’s family along with her lab’s full-time research staff have been scaring locals using everything they know about the science of emotion.

A graduate student ghoul in the annual Newton Haunted House held by psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett’s family and lab members. Photo by Angela Herring.

“One of the well-established, basic principles that makes things scary is uncertainty,” said postdoctoral researcher Maria Gendron a post doctoral researcher in Barrett’s Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory. The lab uses experiential, behavioral, psychophysiological, and brain-imaging techniques to study what emotions are and how they work.

The team of researchers-as-monsters cultivates doubt and ambiguity by remaining completely still until the final moment of fright. “It makes the frightening moment that much better with a nice build-up,” Gendron said.

The amygdala, the part of the brain that is important for fear and many other emotions, is highly sensitive to the sclera, or the white part of a human eyeball, she added, noting that the ghouls use this knowledge to their advantage by slowly widening their eyes and fixing their gaze on visitors to gradually reveal themselves as living creatures.

In the haunted house, a disembodied head sitting on a mad-scientist’s platter pleads by silently mouthing the words “help me” as visitors pass into another room of the old basement, which is flooded with red lights as eerie sounds emanate from hidden corners.

“We want all senses to be engaged,” said Gendron, noting that the team’s research has shown that multimodal stimulation elicits a greater amount of arousal.

Barrett, who was recently honored with a Director’s Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health, has been studying emotion for the better part of two decades. The haunted house idea originated with Barrett’s then five-year-old daughter, who suggested that her mother take what she knows out of the lab and into the community by holding a haunted house to raise money for charity. Her desire to help hungry people, along with her own love of candy, were the main motivations.

This year, Barrett hosted her haunted house on Friday, October 25. The event has raised between $1,500 and $2,000 annually for the Greater Boston Food Bank.