Death, torture, fear…and clowns? It must be Halloween!
In honour of the occasion, we’ve dug up some spooky studies which scientists have carried out to try and explain our reactions to fear and the occult.
Several of these studies won an Ig Nobel Prize, which is awarded every Autumn by the humorous science magazine,The Annals of Improbable Research. There are also a couple of old experiments which were just downright terrifying for the participants!
Spiders rate fairly high as a common phobia, but being bitten by a spider is a pretty rational fear. Back in the 1930s, one brave (or crazy?) researcher put aside his fears in the name of science to advance our understanding of spider bites.
Dr. Allan Walker Blair, an assistant professor of pathology and bacteriology at the University of Alabama, allowed a black widow spider to bite him and documented the experience. He suffered “excruciating pain” and was hospitalised, but lived to tell the tale. However, he (unsurprisingly) decided not to check if he’d developed an immunity and never repeated the experiment.
In the early 1900s, the Romanian Professor of Forensic Psychology Nicolae Minovici hanged himself 12 times. He first experimented with a purpose-built auto-asphyxiation device, but then tried out hanging himself from a standing position (with the help of an assistant). He even tried out different kinds of hangman’s knots! Minovici was able to observe first-hand a lot of the symptoms of hanging, like vision problems, and ringing in the ears.
Apparently he even developed a talent for the procedure, and was able to remain hanging for up to 25 seconds.
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Study in sleep deprivation
Still from A Clockwork Orange, 1971.
Afraid of being buried alive? You probably wouldn’t have wanted to have taken part in this study on human sleep patterns (another experiment which definitely wouldn’t have cleared an ethics committee today).
Pioneering physiologist Dr Nathaniel Kleitman once stayed awake for 180 hours in order to personally study the effects of sleep deprivation (he suffered hallucinations). But his ultimate test was living underground for almost six weeks in 1938 to see if human sleep rhythms could be changed. Unfortunately, the results were inconclusive.
Screamer of a study
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960.
The human scream is arguably the ultimate expression of terror. New York University researchers wanted to find out exactly what makes screams so attention grabbing and nerve-rattling, so they analysed heaps of human screams from YouTube videos, horror movies and volunteer shriekers, who they employed to scream or shout out things like “It’s right behind you!” Find out more about the particular quality which makes screams scarier here.
Speaking of spooky sounds, researchers won an Ig Nobel prize in 2006 for quantifying the frequency of sounds which we find most unpleasant.
The sounds include metal-on-metal, styrofoam rubbing together and (you guessed it!) fingernails being scratched down a blackboard. These sounds even have their own term in Spanish, grima, and a study found these sounds even produce a response in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for fearful responses.
Killer shower curtains
Bathrooms are obviously the scariest room in the house (have you seen Psycho?), so it’s understandable you’d be freaked out if your shower curtain wraps around you like a cloak of death.
But why does it have to be this way? In 2016, an Ig Nobel prize was awarded to the researcher who solved this mystery using the principles of fluid dynamics. By the way, he suggests you should sew weights into the shower curtain lining to prevent it murdering you.
Wondering about ouija
Ouija boards are decidedly spooky devices which (supposedly!) allow people to communicate with the dead. Using a planchette (a glass or disk) which slides across the table to spell out messages, participants often believe that none of them are controlling the planchette.
This year, a group of Danish researchers used eye-tracking devices to examine the behaviour of Ouija users to determine why participants feel like they’re not in control – find out if it really is departed souls moving the planchette here.
Horror movies are a pretty strange form of entertainment – what sort of person intentionally seeks out the feeling of being in mortal danger?
Well, there have been studies to find out exactly that. One study correlated entertainment preferences with personality traits such as risk-taking, antagonism, imagination and tough-mindedness. Another study suggested that people who enjoy horror movies are sensation seekers who react less intensely – and are possibly bored by – more neutral scenes.
Extra treats for trick-or-treat-ers
Trick or treat, the saying goes, but research suggests it’s probably a bit of both!
Several studies have shown that when children wear Halloween costumes and masks, they’re more likely to take extra candy. Psychologists believe this is linked to deindividuation, which is when individuals lose social restraints and inhibitions in a group. Either that, or Halloween demons have a serious sweet tooth.
Still from It, 2017.
Clowns – they’re funny, childlike and (to many people) totally terror-inducing.
In a study called “On the nature of creepiness”, participants found several behavioural characteristics to be consistently creepy, including unpredictability and unusual patterns of eye contact, while creepy physical characteristics include bulging eyes, a peculiar smile and unusually long fingers – sounds like a typical clown.
The study’s lead author writes: “It is the inherent ambiguity surrounding clowns that make them creepy. They seem to be happy, but are they really?” Creepy, indeed.
Author: Larissa Fedunik-Hofman
Larissa is the editorial assistant for Careers with STEM and a Chemistry PhD student. Larissa’s goal is to promote public engagement with STEM through inspiring stories.