How to Scare People: A Practical Guide
I’m no expert on the psychology of fear. I know what it’s like to be afraid, I know what gets my blood going and I know how to scare others, that’s really the extent of my scientific knowledge.
That being said, I have a surprising amount of experience scaring the Hell out of people. In addition to being a generally “creepy dude” I’ve been through dozens of haunted houses, worked in one professional one and operated my own haunt, either on my own or with my family, for over a dozen years.
Usually though, when others find out I run my own haunted house, the first question I get asked isn’t “Can I come?” or “How can I help?” but, rather, “Got any ideas for my house?”
What people usually want are tips and tricks for scaring the the urine right out of their trick or treaters. But while it is brain-dead easy to relay some of my favorite tricks I’ve learned from experience and fellow haunters, it is much more effective to learn what actually scares people inside a haunted house and how you can apply that to your front porch.
As such, I’ve developed a set of simple rules that can help anyone, regardless of budget or time, can scare the pants off just about anyone.
The Two Types of Fear
photo credit: u-JU
Though psychiatrists are quick to tell you that there are many different kinds of fear, for the purpose of this project, there are only two that you need to worry about. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve given them the easiest names possible.
- Type 1: The first time of fear is the kind that is an automated response. It can be best described as a “startle”. It is caused by a loud noise, a sudden change in the environment or simply by something unexpected happening. It is typified by an elevated heart rate but a quick decline. People get startled, often even scream a bit, but come down very fast and start laughing about it almost immediately.
- Type 2: This is the deeper fear that takes place when people are genuinely scared for their lives. This triggers the “fight or flight” instinct. People, when pushed to this point, will run, cry, beg, wet themselves, scream or, in some cases, start throwing punches (be mindful of that). Reactions vary but this is a much more intense fear that does not fade quickly until the person feels that they are out of danger.
So the first question is what are you looking for? Are you looking to give people a good startle as they come up to your door all in good fun or are you looking for something heavier and more serious?
If you want to make sure that everyone has a great time and no one goes home crying, restricting yourself to type one scares is probably best. If you’ve got a controlled audience, such as in a haunted house, you can strive for the second type.
Still, no matter what your goal is, it is important to understand what kinds of scares get each effect and how you can use them in conjunction with one another to maximize their effectiveness.
The Type One Scare
photo credit: (Tres)
A type one scare is, generally speaking, very easy to pull off and requires almost nothing to execute.
In the haunted house I worked for one of the rooms laid out a great type one scare. While the crowd was distracted by a melodramatic and likely copyright infringing scene from Hallraiser, an actor in the back of the room struck the seat of a metal folding chair with a wooden club resulting in a very loud bang.
The result was unanimous every time, the crowd jumped. Young and old, brave and cowardly, everyone jumped at least a little. Even Crystal and I, when going through the haunt as customers before joining the team, couldn’t help but hold our breath.
It had all of the elements of a good startle. The crowd was distracted by something familiar, safe and comfortable and then the environment suddenly changed. In this case it was a noise but it could have been something appearing in the line of sight or a simple unexpected touch.
The bottom line with this kind of scare is to change the environment suddenly and unexpectedly and watch as their minds and bodies take a few minutes to process the information and determine that they are safe.
The Type Two Scare
If the first type of scare can be defined as “What was that?”, the second type is “I’m gonna die!”
However, people don’t get that scared easily. Where the delay between action and comprehension makes it easy startle almost anyone, putting people in genuine fear for their life, without actually putting them in danger, is difficult.
This is especially true on Halloween and at haunted houses. People know that they are safe. When the adrenaline gets raised, likely due to a type one scare, they are quick to remind themselves of that. They know that they are safe logically and can talk themselves through just about anything.
The key then is to separate them from their analysis of the situation and put them in a position where they can’t remind themselves that they are ok. The good news is that it is actually pretty easy to do. When someone is in the shakes of a type one scare, they are operating almost entirely on instinct, their ration and intellect have checked out.
That makes it the perfect time to hit them again.
The Tie Together
photo credit: darkpatator
The key to getting a really good scare is to not rely on just one scare, but to combine the two types of scares into a one-two punch.
For example, if you have a your favorite your costumed baddie come after a trick or treater, they will likely think that you are playing. They know it’s fake and think nothing of it. However, if you hit them with a loud noise or other startle first, their ability to really analyze the situation goes out the window. When the character appears, if it is done quickly enough, it can have an amazing effect.
They key, however, is timing. After you startle someone you only have a split second before ration begins to come back in. You need to hit them fast. You can maximize your time somewhat by improving the punch of your initial fright, or adding additional ones, but it is best to strike quickly.
This pattern of “startle then scare” has proved very effective for me and it is the mantra that I use in every haunt I work in. As a result, I never plan just one scare at a time, everything comes with two or more reasons to jump.
The end result, we’ve caused husbands to shove their wives into the path of danger, teens to run well over quarter of a mile and more than a few cases of unplanned urination. We’ve scared a lot of people.
A Few Quick Tips
I’m going to talk more in the next post about actual devices that are commonly used to create this effect and how to get the most out of them. In the meantime though, I’d like to offer some general tips for getting the most out of each of your scares.
- Combine Senses: If a loud noise is effective, then a loud noise plus a sudden movement is more effective. The more data you throw at the victim the more startled they get and the longer it takes to come down.
- Noise is Easy: Loud noises are the easiest and, even if they don’t startle people they cause a biological reaction that causes blood pressure to rise. If hitting a five dollar metal chair with a club can make a crowd of gawkers jump, just imagine what you can do with the stuff in your own home.
- Use Peripheral Vision: When you use visual startles, make sure that the scare always comes from the side. Peripheral vision is slower than normal vision (PDF) and doesn’t lend itself to to analytical thinking. Scares seem faster and more frightening when they come from the sides.
- Avoid Known Characters: I have a strict rule in my haunt, no well-known movie characters. The reason is simple, people are actually calmed by such characters and are reminded that what they are seeing is fictional. That makes scaring them much harder. Pinhead, Jason and Freddy might have scared millions in the theaters, but those people have had a long time to get over it.
- False Sense of Security: You can’t startle people expecting to be scared. You have to make them feel safe. I usually make the first few rooms of my haunt cheesy and unimpressive so they think everything is a cakewalk. Let people get caught up in sightseeing before the scares begin. Don’t overdecorate your house or let people know in advance just how scary it is going to be. Be careful not to frighten small children though, parents have a tendency to drop dead from laughter.
The idea of all of this is that you have a framework that your scares should operate in. Remember well the mantra of “startle then scare” and watch as people flee. Next time, we’ll talk about some common haunted house techniques used to create this effect, why they fail and how they can be revamped.