Vicki Bååth, a 45-year-old teacher from Gamleby, Sweden, begins to panic as the room closes slowly in around her. Literally. The walls inflate, squeezing her from both directions. Strobe lights flash and some more-than-eerie laughs of children come from every direction. Soon Bååth reaches her limit, and yells “Stop it! Stop it!”—but the walls don’t stop. Finally, she gives in. “Peak fear!” she cries, and she is swiftly pulled out of the closing walls. After a breath, and a reminder that she is still in control, she decides she wants back in. Just as quickly as it stopped, the chaos begins again.
Bååth isn’t in a Saw movie or at the whim of some psychopathic captor. Rather, a crew of amusement park staff and two researchers are keeping a close eye on her, listening for her use of the safeword and watching her physical reactions closely. Bååth and Helge Branscheidt, a 38-year-old hair and make-up artist from Hamburg, Germany, were selected for this unusual project from 1,640 applicants from across 22 countries. The two volunteered to divulge their worst fears and then face them, for science. The Peak Fear Experiment was created by Liseberg amusement park in Sweden, in collaboration with the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University, Denmark. Their goal was to track the sweet spot between fright and fun, the perfect amount of titillation that a haunted house can inflict to bring on the greatest amount of joy. Their report and accompanying short documentary, published October 31, 2023,outlines how the participants’ simultaneous feelings of terror and glee could guide for the park’s future attractions—spurred personal growth.
While some people may not consider facing their fears much fun, many of us seek out “recreational fear,” from haunted houses to horror movies to roller coasters, says literature professor Mathias Clasen, codirector of the Recreational Fear Lab. And this fun may be for more than entertainment. The lab is dedicated to investigating the fun side of fear, and why it may even be beneficial to us. “Subjecting yourself to recreational fear in a safe environment can improve your psychological resilience and stress management ability, and help you build strategies for managing fear and negative feelings,” Clasen said in a press release. “In other words, it can help to develop you as a person,” an idea his lab has studied extensively (and we previously covered here at Atlas Obscura).
Even those who don’t think they like to mix their fun and fear may be playing along in ways they never considered, says Clasen. “Once you start looking for it, you will find recreational fear everywhere,” he says. “It’s in what we do with babies—jumpscare, peekaboo, playing hide-and-seek. We throw babies into the air and catch them. It really is everywhere, and yet we don’t know much about it. The science of recreational fear is still in its infancy.”
The Recreational Fear Lab has been researching this phenomenon in haunted houses for eight years. Through this mini trial, the amusement park took tips and tricks from the lab’s prior research, coupled with the participants’ biggest fears—the dark and small spaces for Bååth, spiders for Branscheidt—and combined them to create a tailor-made haunted house experience. Bååth was more of what the Recreational Fear Lab team calls a “white-knuckler,” meaning that she tries to overcome and reduce her fear in the moment. Branscheidt fell more toward the “adrenaline junkie” category, seeking to make the most of scary experiences.
On October 11, 2023, it was time to put the custom-designed haunting to the test. After participants were interviewed to assess the pre-experiment psychological state and wired up with sensors, the “fun” began. Bags were put over Bååth and Branscheidt’s heads to disorient them as they headed to and from the six different immersive sets that they would be pulled in and out of for the next 90 minutes. Separated, they each faced horrifying scenes, including live actors and equally live spiders, says Karl Svedung, Head of Marketing at Liseberg. In one scenario, a participant was strapped to a rolling chair and wheeled around a room of sadistic clowns. Another featured being chair-bound in a maze of mirrors with a frantic, pleading person. The final test was set in an abandoned tunnel, never before used for guests. The participants were shut in the long, dark tunnel, their bare feet in standing water, as a figure moved toward them, the walls lined with live spiders.
Throughout, Clasen and Thomas Terkildsen from the Recreational Fear Lab measured the participants’ fear responses through changes in heart rate, psychological state, facial expression, and skin conductance (for sweat). What they found mostly lined up with their previous findings: In a safe environment and at the right levels, people can take control of their fear through various coping mechanisms, from anger to grounding oneself in their body. “It was mind-blowingly good! I had to find ways to avoid panicking and to control that fear, by doing things like getting angry,” said Bååth in the release.
In pre- and post-experiment interviews, both participants said the experience was about as scary as they expected, but far more enjoyable than they originally thought. In her post-experience interview, Bååth says she enjoyed the experiment even while she was angry or terrified. “For me, the scariest element was the unknown, not knowing what was going to happen,” said Branscheidt in the release. “It might sound very strange to others, but I enjoyed being in those scary places, letting rip and going crazy.”
Even after the most terrifying moments, both participants felt immense satisfaction. “Afterwards, I felt this shock of joy that I’d got through it, because it was really scary and well done,” Branscheidt said. Though Bååth was frightened enough to use the safeword, her pride in making it through left her more satisfied than she would have thought. “I think, really, what was most interesting to me was how enjoyable they felt the whole thing was, and how I was struck by how proud she was,” says Clasen. “She kept telling me, ‘I’m so proud of myself. I’m so happy.’ So she obviously felt that she had now sort of opened a new domain of experience to herself. That sense of having faced your fear and conquered it.”
The park plans to use what they’ve learned in the study to bring visitors the most exhilarating and rewarding experiences, says Svedung—based in science. But you don’t have to wait for the next Halloween to play with fear, says Clasen. In fact, he encourages it all year long and at every age. “Embrace it,” he says. “And let kids embrace it. The whole picture is that for most people, engaging with recreational fear, including horror media, has positive effects that outweigh the occasional negative effects. Because of course, you and I probably still occasionally get nightmares or feel compelled to look under the bed before we go to sleep, just in case there was a monster. So there are those kinds of mild behavioral disturbances, but I think they’re outweighed by the positive.”