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Be Afraid

The untapped political benefits of haunted houses

In the final minutes of Doomocracy—a piece of immersive theater styled after a haunted house that ran in Brooklyn during the month leading up to Election Day—audience members were confronted with three doors. One was labeled “Clinton,” one “Trump,” and the third “Other.” Pass through the Clinton door and you were greeted by a pantsuited actor in a grinning Hillary mask and urged to don identical headgear. Those who picked Door Trump were outfitted with a molded plastic visage of the Donald. And those who picked “Other”—well, they had to be Trump as well. Once all were masked, the group was channeled into a common space set with Astroturf, some netted goals, and a Great Dictator-esque inflatable globe and told to . . . play soccer. Because it’s all a game. Get it?

I saw Doomocracy at the end of its run, just three days before the election. Staged at the four-million-square-foot Brooklyn Army Terminal by the arts organization Creative Time, the “house of political horrors” was free, and when, by some miracle, I managed to get four tickets off the wait list, I booked a flight to New York. For the last year, in Chicago, I’d been developing a topical haunted house of my own, boning up on the history of haunted attractions on popular culture and how fear functions as entertainment. I was hooked into the haunted zeitgeist and I headed to LaGuardia eager to see what Pedro Reyes, Doomocracy’s creator, had done with the genre on such a large scale.

Haunted houses are widely dismissed as lowbrow, populist entertainment pandering to baseline fears of death and torture via the medium of chainsaw-wielding zombies. They aim to provoke a visceral response, using the tried-and-true methodology of loud noises, sudden disruptions, and excessive fog. Doomocracy aimed to elevate this form by taking as its subject matter such elemental American horrors as corporate bailouts and the Second Amendment. “The haunted house has never really been considered an art form, but it’s a true folk art,” Reyes told the New York Times.

Fine, but as a haunted house, Reyes’s Doomocracy was a stiff. It started off well enough. After being given a primer on safety, troupes of twelve audience members were dispatched every ten minutes or so from a waiting area into a van (radio droning rabid chatter from Infowars), driven across the dark and imposing complex, and abducted by a squad of paramilitary goons in riot gear. Though clearly staged, the scene held out a promise of menace and uncertainty. But then, disappointingly, the audience was left to trudge from one meticulously art-directed set piece to the next in the (admittedly spooky) industrial space, stopping to passively watch scenes taking jabs at Big Sugar and climate deniers. It was not, in a word, scary. One of the more cringe-inducing bits appeared to operate on the premise that there is nothing more terrifying than being forced to work in catering.

The fears that animated Doomocracy were by and large the night terrors of the chattering class. Structural racism, police brutality, gang violence, hate crimes, unemployment, hunger, homelessness, lead poisoning, oil pipelines, the wage gap, immigration—the WALL for crying out loud—of these horrors, which a vast majority of the country lives with on a daily basis, none made an appearance. At best, the show aestheticized fear. In one of the more affecting pieces, a lone operator at a console on one side of a room dropped a “bomb” on the quiet tableau of a couple having tea somewhere in the Middle East (signaled by a carpet and the marked ethnicity of the actors, who elsewhere in the show were for the most part white). The scene conveyed a certain grim solemnity, but was so stylized as to sterilize much of the horror of its foundational facts.

Back in July I traveled to the Republican National Convention to help coordinate coverage for the outfit I work with, a Cleveland-based publication dedicated to covering the Rust Belt. It was an exhausting week; by the end I felt like I had been physically pummeled by the hateful rhetoric of the convention zone. So perhaps it’s not surprising that one of my favorite stories from the trip was a short piece I did on a troupe of clowns.

Calling themselves #notfunnycleveland, the group staged a twenty-minute piece of street theater every day of the RNC. Writers and pundits were calling the campaign and convention a “circus” and the candidate a “clown”—but the real clowns pointed out that circuses are supposed to be fun and this was anything but.

“Down with Trump! He’s not funny!” they chanted, wearing red noses and doing pratfalls, before launching abruptly into a dead-serious piece on police violence against African Americans. “Since the emergence of the Republican ticket,” one of them told me, the collapse of entertainment and political coverage has hit a new high, or low depending on your perspective. “It has muddied our ability to discern what we should be afraid of.” It was straight out of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, written during the Reagan years when everyone was freaking out about the election of a movie star to the presidency. In it, Postman points out the risks to civil society and “rational discourse” when media and politics are treated—or treat themselves—as entertainment.

Here was a scare I could feel in my own badly insured bones; here was someone pushing the edge of acceptable behavior.

Postman died in 2003, so we’ll never know what he’d have to say about the elevation of fear to entertainment on the campaign trail. But fear’s visceral effect on reason is well established. Of all the emotions, fear may be the most physical. When your threat response is triggered—by a loud noise, a flash of light, or a startling electoral college upset—your amygdala signals your autonomic nervous system. Your heart pounds, your breathing quickens or is arrested entirely. Adrenaline and cortisol flood your body; blood rushes to your hands and feet, preparing you to flee or fight. At its extreme, the visceral response to fear overrides executive functioning, as the prefrontal cortex—the center of reason—goes offline and a more primal part of the brain takes over. “Sights, sounds, smells, and touch are encoded as isolated, dissociated fragments, and normal memory processing disintegrates,” writes Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score, an exploration of the physiology of trauma, and the somatic treatment of PTSD. “Time freezes, so that the present danger feels like it will last forever.”

This is the response that a haunted house aims to provoke. In some of the more extreme ones, I’ve heard, actors compete to see who can get the most patrons to pee their pants.

I didn’t pee my pants on election night, but I did find myself at one point, waiting for CNN to call Pennsylvania, curled up in a fetal position without quite knowing how I got there. Later, I lashed out at a friend in a near-dissociated panic. I found out anecdotally that this was surprisingly common. Across the country, as the amygdalae of stunned progressives collectively processed the threat of Donald Trump, more than a few of them either flew from or fought with their loved ones, their colleagues, whoever was close at hand. 

In the days that followed, my own wrenching nausea was a constant reminder of the tangible effects of fear. I wasn’t alone. “I spent the night awake in bed with the distinct physical sensation of being kicked by boots as I cringed on the street,” my friend Z wrote on November 9. “I already feel like I look 20 years older,” texted E. “When am I going to ever sleep more than four hours and stop feeling like I need to throw up?”

Six weeks later, the nausea has passed but the assault on reason continues: in Washington, on CNN, across Twitter, from Russia. A broad swath of liberal America is coming to terms with something the rest of the populace has known, and felt, for a very long while—that the United States can be scary, and that the government and its agents may not always act in their interests. It’s as though the limbic system of an entire nation has been scrambled beyond repair. Donald Trump’s upset victory has been held up as—among many things—an alarming triumph of emotion over reason. But what’s less discussed in all the hot takes is the notion that emotion can and should be taken seriously in public life as it is in private. As establishment liberals experience political fear, many of them for the first time, they would be wise to stop attempting to distance themselves from it, however unpleasant it is and however ugly it makes them.

Margee Kerr is a sociologist who has been studying fear since 2008 at Pittsburgh’s ScareHouse, which appears regularly on lists of “America’s Scariest Haunted Houses.” In her 2015 book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear she makes a convincing case for intentionally putting yourself in situations that provoke anxiety and panic.

“Creating an experience with the right amount of fear to push boundaries and leave people feeling confident,” she writes, “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. But I saw and learned firsthand it was worth doing.”

It’s worth doing because by taking fear’s disruptive effect on reason seriously, she says, you can teach yourself to better manage it. One way to do so is to make fear “safe” by engendering simultaneous feelings of love and affection. Holding someone’s hand for just forty-five seconds, for example, has been found to significantly diminish the physiological response to threats. Thus, ScareHouse patrons are required to go through Kerr’s lab—an intense, interactive haunt-within-the-haunt called “The Basement”—with a partner.

Perhaps more importantly, safe and consensual experiences of fright can encourage the facility of “cognitive reappraisal”—the conscious effort of, in Kerr’s words, “actively redefining an experience and assigning new meaning.” To turn the sensation of heat into cold, for example, and pain into pleasure, or fear into joy. Obviously this is really hard when being chased by a predator in real life, but within the controlled structure of a haunted house, it may be doable. Tibetan monks have mastered this skill through meditation; so have endurance athletes, and practitioners of BDSM.

“Curated or manufactured intense emotional experiences like haunted houses,” Kerr writes, “need to start from a place of safety, take you on an out of control ride in which you push yourself beyond your boundaries, and return you safely, feeling better and a little wiser.” In her research, in fact, she’s found people to be almost euphoric once the experience is over—relaxed and confident and happy.

And this was my fundamental problem with Doomocracy: it may have been safe, but it wasn’t scary. It offered no surprises—no startling movements, exactly one sudden fright. Neither did it startle me out of any preconceptions, whether they were political convictions or assumptions about what ghoul might be lurking around the corner. My rational mind remained in control, my boundaries firmly in place, and thus I learned nothing.

The most successful of Doomocracy’s fourteen scenes was set in a doctor’s waiting room. As one or two audience members were called to see a “doctor,” a pale and twitchy woman hit up those who remained with a hard-luck story.

She’d been in a car accident, see? And she’d gotten dependent on Oxy. Really, it wasn’t much—she wasn’t a drug addict—but it was the only thing that worked to cut the pain. And then, you see, she lost her job, and her insurance wouldn’t pay for the scrip any more, and the doc was going to cut her off and, well, could we please, please just maybe get a prescription for her? She would be so grateful. So very grateful.

The actor playing this part, Monique Vukovic (billed in the program as “Soccer mom junkie”), was great. Her story rang true—her desperation was palpable. She created a character, drew us in, and—at least in me—generated a pang of empathy. Here was a scare I could feel in my own badly insured bones; here was someone pushing the edge of acceptable behavior. Here was the human cost of the opioid epidemic and the health insurance crisis. I was riveted by this woman, and even forgot myself for a moment—but then I was hustled off to the next attraction.

Much as the DNC in Brooklyn reportedly poo-poohed the alarms being rung by operatives on the ground in Michigan, Doomocracy just didn’t take fear seriously. It treated it as an inside joke—a game and a spectacle—rather than actually opening visitors up to the opportunity to get intimate with unreason and learn from it. Since the vote, as unspeakable shrieking terrors continue to be released daily from the upper floors of Trump Tower, many on the left remain adamant that they refuse to be terrified. But we should be afraid. We should practice fear, get to know it in our breath and bowels—because learning how to best disarm that zombie with a chainsaw will be crucial in the coming months and years.