Popular Science



IT’S EASY TO DISREGARD the notion of paranormal activity in broad daylight, but everything changes when you head into a dark basement. Unfamiliar and threatenin­g environmen­ts kick our survival instincts up a notch. “If you’re walking in the woods and you see movement, you can make two errors,” says Michiel van Elk, a professor of social psychology at Leiden University. “You can either think it’s nothing, and it could be a potential predator, or you can think there’s a predator, and there’s nothing.” Psychologi­sts suspect humans evolved a cognitive bias toward the latter mistake for good reason: Our ancestors had to keep a constant lookout for stealthy hazards like leopards and snakes, and folks with a “better safe than sorry” attitude were more likely to survive and reproduce. But, van Elk says, this propensity can cause us to sense the presence of another even when we’re alone. That’s why a snapping twig can activate the fightor-flight reflexes that make us scream. Ghost tours capitalize on this hereditary paranoia by forcing the mind to wrestle with ambiguity. A good haunted mansion doesn’t shove a spirit right in your face, but encourages you to wonder if you might have just seen one out of the corner of your eye. The uncertaint­y itself drives up the fear factor. Even quirks of architectu­re can trigger this primitive terror: In 1975, British geographer Jay Appleton found that, when it comes to our habitats, humans tend to think of places as safe when they offer two things: prospect (a clear view of the outside world) and refuge (the opportunit­y to hide from danger). A poorly lit old house gives us neither of those two accommodat­ions, blocking our ability to see what’s around the corner and providing plenty of shadows in which malicious entities could lurk.

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