A Sociologist Explores “The Science of Fear”

Book review: Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, by Margee Kerr (Amazon / Book Depository)

Last year I’d read enough spooky nonfiction to make a list for October, but this year I didn’t have enough appropriate titles to compile one (though you can also terrify yourself by just browsing the “true crime” tab). But the positively wonderful Mary at Silver Button Books is hosting a Frighteningly Good Reads event and I’m so excited about it! Head here for more info and to share your posts of what spooky scary books you’re reading this month and see others’ suggestions, or use #frighteninglygoodreads2019 on your social media of choice.

Do you have any good spooky nonfiction recommendations? My most recent one is Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.

There’s something freeing, and even a little bit dangerous, in screaming as loud as you want. Screaming is part of our evolved survivor tool kit, protecting us by scaring away predators and alerting others of danger nearby. Pulling our face into a scream is also believed to make us more alert, intensifying our threat response (just as squinching our nose in disgust blocks foul odors from going into our nostrils).

So much to learn here. Sociologist Margee Kerr is curious about what makes us afraid and why, and why we sometimes seek out fear-inducing situations intentionally (think rollercoasters, haunted houses, dark tourism). Why do we purposely do things that make us experience thrills through fear, or sometimes just subject ourselves to pure terror? Her overarching question is how these kinds of experiences might ultimately make us happier, as that must be the underlying intention behind paying to be spooked.

Her scientific interest in this topic came from work she did in the haunted house business (aside: I’ve never been interested in those manufactured haunted house experiences, but kind of cool that you can work on them as a sociologist). Haunted houses and the background behind why and how certain things scare us in them, including cultural differences between these attractions in the US and those designed abroad, are in focus throughout. The reasoning behind fears and how some were exploited was probably my favorite element:

Belief in possession, hauntings, and witchcraft reminded people to stay on the righteous path of the Lord (or gods, spirits, or whichever supreme being a particular culture recognized) and fight their inner beasts tempting them to stray. This fear-based morality was and still is an incredibly effective form of social control.

The book is split into physical thrills — thrill rides, “edge walks” at high heights; psychological chills — touring Pennsylvania’s abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary, ghost hunters, Japanese haunted attractions; and “real fear” — that is, more naturally occurring ones: confronting memento mori in the Aokigahara forest in Japan, infamous as a suicide location, and living in or traveling to potentially terrifying locations. Here, that’s Bogota, Colombia, where she asks, “Do you go to haunted houses for a thrill when you have a very real reason to fear death or violent abduction? And how might your attitudes change if your neighborhood suddenly grew safe, within the span of a decade or two?”

It’s incredibly well researched; every page is packed with readable, smoothly incorporated statistics and data. It’s one of those with so many fascinating side facts beyond what you expected to learn about, and provides a lot of thought-provoking insights into human nature and experience.

But it’s also framed through Kerr’s personal experiences, and these are uneven. Some were surprisingly illuminating, even unexpectedly touching, like the feelings and memories she confronts when visiting Aokigahara forest. Elsewhere some examples felt shoehorned in to support her points and stories, like about a dangerous neighborhood she lived in as a graduate student or wandering, lost, into a courtyard in Bogota that rattled her. Or it became a bit too much about her personally – it’s one thing to describe her travels across the globe in search of understanding the human relationship to thrills and chills, and another to veer too far into memoir territory. These instances aren’t many, but did detract somewhat from a fascinating and multi-faceted sociological study.

I thought the adventure that best illustrated Kerr’s work and our complex relationship with fear came here, on a ghost tour in a cemetery in Bogota:

Before visiting the cemetery that night, I had never experienced such a wonderful balance of thrill, laughter, suspense, and history. This tour had scared people, used depictions of violence, and made people uncomfortable. Yet it also left people feeling proud, confident, thankful, and with a sense of solidarity. Here, I thought, was the evidence of how thrilling, dramatic, scary, and, yes, even tragic material could make you feel better and more whole. It was not insensitive… Done right, it was fun, illustrative, moving, and maybe even a little bit healing.

In these spaces you can feel something you have never felt before, or recall a difficult memory accompanied by friends in a safe environment, and this time maybe you can store it with a little less fear and a little more fun. Creating an experience with the right amount of fear to push boundaries and leave people feeling confident, with the right amount of fun to leave them feeling wonderful, and all within a context that is not exploitative or insensitive, is a tough challenge—one that many, many places have failed at.

In other words, parts of Scream may be more or less interesting depending on your personal inclinations, so what you personally find scary or thrilling and why it’s meaningful to you. She weaves neuroscience, psychology, and sociology into her stories seamlessly, leaving you feeling well informed on so much, including the actual biology of fear, how it influences us and can be beneficial without becoming overly technical or scientific. Well worth the read. 3.5/5

Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear
by Margee Kerr
published September 29, 2015 by PublicAffairs

Amazon / Book Depository


14 thoughts on “A Sociologist Explores “The Science of Fear”

Add yours

  1. Great review! This does sound like a very interesting book to pick up in October, especially in the midst of other horror novels and true crime books! I do like a good thrill but have never really questioned why. What a fascinating topic to explore.


  2. This book looks fascinating! I hope I can get a copy of it from my local library. Years and years ago I worked at one of those manufactured haunted houses as the tour that walks groups through and it was endlessly interesting how different people’s reactions could be – the best ones were the excited groups of (mostly) girls that had come for a safe thrill!

    I’m so happy that you are doing Frighteningly Good Reads this year! It will be fun to see any of your spooky nonfiction recommendations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really was! That’s so interesting that you worked in one of those houses. I never really considered how they were designed or the kind of thinking that went into them, and it ended up so interesting to learn about. This one might be especially interesting to you with your perspective on that!

      Thanks for hosting the event! I’m looking forward to seeing everyone’s recommendations 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. She handled the statistics and data incredibly well, I thought! I get put off if it’s research and data-heavy without being incorporated into the narrative in an easily digestible way, and this one did it seamlessly. So impressed by that!

      Liked by 1 person

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