For­get ghosts and zom­bies. Noth­ing is scarier than what’s in your mind.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Car­los Lozada Car­los Lozada is the non­fic­tion book critic of The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Margee Kerr is a fear junkie. Roller coast­ers, haunted houses, heights, aban­doned pris­ons, ghosts (well, maybe), even death — she con­fronts them with the re­lent­less­ness of a zombie Ter­mi­na­tor.

But she’s also a so­ci­ol­o­gist, and she has taken on the most daunt­ing task of all: writ­ing a book about the sci­ence and his­tory of fear that is en­joy­able to read with­out also be­ing, well, en­tirely un­scary. With “Scream,” she has largely suc­ceeded. It is hard to de­scribe fear sec­ond-hand — you re­ally have to be there — but Kerr mixes enough self-aware­ness and insight with her tales of fright to make the book camp­fire-wor­thy. “Scream” may not haunt you out­right, but it stays with you, mainly by show­ing how the scari­est place in the world is in­side your own head.

Kerr’s love af­fair with fear be­gan early. A ride on the Comet, Her­shey Park’s old­est roller coaster, at age 11, and an en­counter with a faux corpse at a Scot­tish high­land fair in Mary­land, and she was hooked. “I was even yelled at by my sixth grade teacher for bring­ing in a book on witch­craft that had a draw­ing of a naked woman in­side,” Kerr re­calls. “‘That’s in­ap­pro­pri­ate, Margee,’ she said.”

In “Scream,” Kerr is un­trou­bled by such niceties as she trav­els the world in search of greater and greater fears. The author climbs aboard the steep­est roller coaster in the world, the Tak­abisha at Fuji-Q High­land amuse­ment park in Ja­pan. The 3,300-foot, two-minute ride fea­tures a 121-de­gree loop in which the track, 141 feet above ground, curves back against it­self. “As the car inched for­ward over the peak,” Kerr writes, “my legs started shak­ing un­con­trol­lably, and I kept re­peat­ing ‘Oh my God.’ . . . Fi­nally, the car tipped over the apex and dove to­ward the ground. I started scream­ing louder than I ever have be­fore, as tears streamed down my face.”

Roller coast­ers are a unique sort of scare, Kerr ex­plains. “Rather than be­ing fright­ened be­cause of their con­tent, they take our ‘think­ing’ brain off-line and de­liver a quick and pow­er­ful jolt di­rectly to our body . . . trig­ger­ing the chem­i­cal cas­cade col­lec­tively known as fight or flight, or the threat re­sponse — what most peo­ple just call ‘fear.’ ”

She re­peat­edly vis­its the no­to­ri­ous East­ern State Pen­i­ten­tiary in Philadel­phia — now run as a mu­seum and haunted house, it was a pioneer in soli­tary con­fine­ment — first to ex­pe­ri­ence the ter­ror of time alone in a win­dow­less, pitch-black, un­der­ground cell and later with a ghost-hunt­ing team, in search of a para­nor­mal ex­pe­ri­ence. Armed with cam­eras, ther­mome­ters, elec­tro­mag­netic field me­ters and ten­nis balls (you’ll never guess what they’re for; it’s creepy in a pro­saic kind of way), the group stalks the pri­son at night. Kerr is soon “caught up in the en­ergy, hov­er­ing be­hind them at arm’s length, ob­serv­ing in­tently. . . . I re­al­ized I was believ­ing.” She de­scribes the phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion of some en­tity mov­ing through her, and al­though she knows it could have been just in her mind, “I wasn’t go­ing to give up on my ghost story,” she de­cides.

Kerr goes deep into the bi­o­log­i­cal and sci­en­tific def­i­ni­tions of fear, rather than dis­miss­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence solely as an emo­tion. Con­cep­tu­ally, fear spans var­i­ous kinds of threats (acute, po­ten­tial, sus­tained) and losses; phys­i­cally, the amyg­dala, which pro­cesses threats deep within our brains, trig­gers in­stant re­ac­tions through­out the body, while other parts of the brain gather in­for­ma­tion for more crit­i­cal, de­lib­er­a­tive eval­u­a­tion. “Ev­ery or­gan­ism, from the fruit fly to the hu­man, has a de­fense or threat re­sponse,” she re­minds. “It’s one of our sur­vival cir­cuits.”

The stim­u­lat­ing ef­fects of fear are of­ten quite plea­sur­able, of course. “No won­der peo­ple are stand­ing in line four hours for a two-minute thrill,” Kerr writes. For oth­ers, it can elicit sweat­ing, chest pound­ing, dizzi­ness, the feel­ing you’re about to die — a clas­sic panic at­tack. Kerr ex­pe­ri­enced some of the lat­ter sen­sa­tions on the top of the 116-story CN Tower in Toronto, where guests can take the EdgeWalk be­yond the ob­ser­va­tion deck, strolling around the tower on a five-foot-wide walk­way, with­out guardrails, strapped to a har­ness, peering over the edge. Out on the walk, Kerr’s thoughts be­come clouded, waves of heat course through her, and she is barely able to move. Know­ing what is hap­pen­ing to her body and mind — the cas­cade of chem­i­cals re­leased by her ner­vous sys­tem sends her body into over­drive — doesn’t re­ally mat­ter. “Good-bye, de­tached an­a­lyt­i­cal so­ci­ol­o­gist, who is writ­ing a book about fear,” she writes. “Hello, pri­mal self.”

Kerr lapses into some­thing of a for­mula at times, de­vot­ing each chap­ter to a scary ex­pe­ri­ence, in­ter­spersed with sci­en­tific and so­ci­o­log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tions, with a bit of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy thrown in. Some of her asides are par­tic­u­larly cap­ti­vat­ing, as when she re­veals the sex­ism of Amer­ica’s haunted-house industry; its likely fu­ture in­te­gra­tion with theater, vir­tual-re­al­ity and video-game en­vi­ron­ments; and the his­tor­i­cal treat­ment of mon­sters in film as a means to pro­tect viewer sen­si­bil­i­ties. “Dur­ing the 1930s,” she ex­plains, “the Hol­ly­wood Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion de­creed that ev­ery mon­ster in a film must be de­stroyed by the end of the movie.”

Kerr brings her find­ings to­gether in her work with ScareHouse, a haunted at­trac­tion in Pitts­burgh to which she has long-stand­ing ties. With col­leagues there, she de­vel­ops the “Base­ment,” in which thrill-seek­ers get a more im­mer­sive, one-on-one ex­pe­ri­ence, such as an im­pro­vised in­ter­ro­ga­tion, con­fine­ment in a cof­fin, or ses­sions with ac­tors por­tray­ing the char­ac­ters that sur­veys show scare peo­ple most: clowns, de­mons, nurses/doc­tors and witches. Vis­i­tors com­plete be­fore-and-af­ter sur­veys, and some even vol­un­teer for sub­se­quent brain scans. Though her data is pre­lim­i­nary, Kerr finds that peo­ple tend to en­joy en­gag­ing with thrilling, scary ma­te­rial and that many then feel more em­pow­ered to take on the real chal­lenges in their lives.

Of course, the Base­ment of­fers a safe word you can yell if things get too in­tense and you want out; real life does not. And there’s an enor­mous dif­fer­ence be­tween thrills we choose and fears we do not.

For all her fo­cus on haunted houses, roller coast­ers and var­i­ous scary des­ti­na­tions, Kerr’s emo­tions seem to run deep­est in less­con­trived cir­cum­stances. She re­calls the un­bri­dled anx­i­ety of get­ting stuck in a Pitts­burgh hospi­tal el­e­va­tor, for in­stance: “Be­ing in­side a ster­ile steel box for an in­def­i­nite pe­riod of time trig­gered se­ri­ous pan­ick­ing.” Af­ter tak­ing a wrong turn in the streets of Bogota, Colom­bia, Kerr be­came ter­ri­fied when she thought two men were fol­low­ing her; soon she be­gan suf­fer­ing night­mares and ques­tion­ing whether to con­tinue re­search­ing her book on fear.

And she vis­its the Aoki­ga­hara Jukai For­est in the foothills of Ja­pan’s Mount Fuji, a beau­ti­ful yet grim des­ti­na­tion known as Sui­cide For­est, a pop­u­lar spot for Ja­panese to take their own lives. Sit­ting in a chair of rocks and trunks, tan­gled roots as arm­rests, Kerr contemplated how she might han­dle some­day her fi­nal mo­ments of life, how her fam­ily would re­act. But rather than feel de­spon­dent, she writes, “I felt a surge of love and com­pas­sion for ev­ery­one in my life.”

This lends cre­dence to one of Kerr’s over­ar­ch­ing con­clu­sions: There are few fears as scary as the ones we cre­ate, pon­der, con­sider in our minds. “Most Amer­i­cans go to great lengths to es­cape the mon­sters that are our own thoughts and imag­i­na­tions,” she writes, cit­ing a Univer­sity of Vir­ginia study show­ing that peo­ple would rather hurt them­selves through self-ad­min­is­tered shocks rather than re­main alone too long with their thoughts. “Iso­la­tion is like pulling the wheel from the mouse,” Kerr writes, “and with noth­ing to run on, we’re left to our own thoughts and cre­at­ing our own stim­u­la­tion, which can lead to vivid vis­ual and au­di­tory hal­lu­ci­na­tions.”

Even the most fa­mous mon­sters are of our own mak­ing, Kerr re­minds us, cau­tion­ary tales for hu­man ex­cess. Godzilla re­veals the dan­gers of nu­clear waste, the zombie apoca­lypse fol­lows a breakdown of so­cial or­der, and the ma­chines rise up when we can’t man­age tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs. The real fear — the scari­est char­ac­ter — is still us.


By Margee Kerr. PublicAf­fairs. 274 pp. $26.99

SCREAM Chill­ing Ad­ven­tures in the Sci­ence of Fear

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