You hear a chainsaw roar to life behind you. You turn and see it—hulking, not a man exactly, or maybe it is, maybe that bloody pig’s head is just a mask. Holy shit, he’s wearing a pig’s head as a mask. In that moment, your body doesn’t care that you’re there voluntarily, that you bought a ticket and joked with your friends about how much fun this was going to be. Your heart accelerates, your hands go clammy, your pupils dilate. It’s fear. It doesn’t matter that you’re supposed to be having fun.

Over the years science has illuminated a great deal about the biological side of fear, how our bodies prep us to run or throw a punch when there’s an immediate threat. But why we actively seek out frightening experiences as entertainment, how we react to them, and the impact they have on us, that’s a much darker forest. A multidisciplinary group of researchers in Aarhus, Denmark, have the only laboratory in the world—the Recreational Fear Lab—dedicated specifically to understanding the fun, possibly beneficial, side of fear. Their work could have implications for everything from game and attraction design, to the development and treatment of anxiety, to how we raise our children. It might be scary, but it’s also fun as hell.

The Recreational Fear Lab is not your typical academic setting.
The Recreational Fear Lab is not your typical academic setting. Jacob Papsø for Atlas Obscura

For most of human history, fear was primarily a tool for survival, but it has served other purposes. There’s fear as a rite of passage, such as going through a stressful trial as an introduction to adulthood. And fear as a means of social control; think Jonathan Edwards’s 1741 sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. (“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over a fire, abhors you.”) Fear isn’t only the physiological response that helps keep animals alive, it’s also a human emotional state, and one that doesn’t feel particularly good.

But something changed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Writers such as Matthew Lewis, Charles Robert Maturin, and Mary Shelley brought the uncanny and the gruesome to the tradition of Gothic novels, more or less giving birth to the genre we know today as horror: fear as entertainment. Their work led to Bram Stoker, Edgar Allen Poe, and Stephen King. The 1922 silent film Nosferatu evolved into The Bride of Frankenstein, The Exorcist, and Get Out. From haunted houses to Resident Evil, fear has since become more than a matter of life and death. It’s a matter of what should we do on Friday night.

All of these entertainments are meant to inspire a negative emotion and an uncomfortable physical response. Tragedy does a similar thing, and people have been thinking about why we like it for a long time. Aristotle, in his Poetics, discussed how people seem to derive pleasure from dramas that inspire pity and sadness. Eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume called it the “paradox of tragedy.” Noel Carroll, an emeritus professor of philosophy at New York’s CUNY Graduate Center, used the same lens in his 1982 book, The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. In it, he stalks two questions. How can we fear something we know does not exist? And whyever would we choose to feel this negative emotion if we don’t have to?

To immerse myself in a scientific explanation for the paradox of horror, to see the nexus of peril and pleasure, to experience the future of fear-based entertainment, I have to start in a place called Dark Valley.

Literature professor Mathias Clasen's interest in the psychology of horror led to the creation of the world's only lab devoted to recreational fear.
Literature professor Mathias Clasen’s interest in the psychology of horror led to the creation of the world’s only lab devoted to recreational fear. Jacob Papsø for Atlas Obscura

My Virgil in Dark Valley is Mathias Clasen, a literature professor at Aarhus University. We’ve spent the hour or so drive from Aarhus to the small Danish city of Vejle talking about fear, family, and fun. His academic background was evident on the walls of his office back in the city: the horror novels of Robert R. McCammon, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, a Jaws poster. He started his career approaching horror from a literary, theoretical perspective, but was really interested in the psychology of its appeal to people like him, the author of A Very Nervous Person’s Guide to Horror Movies.

A couple of years after he got his Ph.D. in 2012, Clasen began to speak with a group at the university that studies religion, cognition, and culture, exploring questions such as why people believe in supernatural agents or do painful religious rituals. After a few years, the Recreational Fear Lab was born. “I guess I’ve been stubborn enough and lucky enough to be able to convert my personal fascination with frightening entertainment into a viable career,” he says.

When he searched the scientific literature on what the team now calls recreational fear—specifically, voluntary entertainments that use horror tropes to inspire fear—he found very little. “[Recreational fear] is so pervasive, once you start looking for it you find it everywhere, but it’s also scientifically understudied,” he says. “It’s also what makes it fun. There’s so many things to discover.”

Clasen’s not a scientist, so he built a small team and partners with psychologists and cognitive specialists to design experiments. They’ve used questionnaires to understand the personality profiles of horror fans. They’ve given people a memory task and then startled them with a jump scare. “There isn’t any literature on jump scares, the basic building block of every horror movie. It’s crazy there’s no literature on something that’s so basic to the genre,” he says. Clasen and his colleagues have since turned to the real world—and now virtual worlds—for their experiments in fear.

Inspiration on the walls of Clasen's office in Aarhus.
Inspiration on the walls of Clasen’s office in Aarhus. Jacob Papsø for Atlas Obscura

Clasen turns off Ribe Landevej (Fish Country Road) and onto the single-lane Morkedalsvej (Dark Valley Road), hemmed in tightly by woods. “I want to start here because this is actually where the experience starts,” Clasen says. We’re visiting during the summer, but in October, this road will be blocked with a military-style checkpoint, he explains. Every now and then, as cars full of visitors wait their turn, a decoy car will arrive, be stopped, and its passengers pulled out and thrown to the ground. The other visitors, presumably, will get anxious about what is to come. (Clasen recalls one occasion when a car full of actual Danish cops were mistaken for the decoy. To their credit, they played along, “which I thought was a heartwarming story,” Clasen says.)

At the end of Dark Valley Road is a former fish processing factory. Waiting there for us is a blond man with a mustache twirled up at the ends and a twinkle in his eye: Jonas Bøgh, whose official (self-granted) title is “Architect of Fear.” Today Dark Valley—to be clear, it carried that name before, when its main business was fish and not fright—is now home to Dystopia, Bøgh’s brainchild, Clasen’s experimental site, and Denmark’s largest haunted attraction.

“So what would you like to see?” Bøgh says. “Everything?”

Dystopia Entertainment/Jacob Papsø

The fear that Bøgh constructs and Clasen studies at Dystopia is physiologically indistinguishable from what prey feels in the presence of a predator. Specific things happen, depending on the proximity, nature, and magnitude of a threat, real or perceived. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, which processes sensory input, lights up, sending signals through the thalamus to the amygdala, a small region deep in the skull that is involved in memory, decision-making, and emotion. It’s widely considered the seat of fear, and in turn activates the hypothalamus and brainstem to begin something called the “defense cascade.” The body floods with stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Heart rate dips at first, then shoots up. Pupils dilate and muscles tense. You breathe hard, you sweat, your blood pressure spikes. Blood flows to your limbs, but the tips of your fingers get a little colder. You don’t really feel pain, and clear thinking isn’t easy.

From a purely biological perspective, fear is an expensive emotion, and one that your body can’t sustain for long. So when the threat has passed and you’re alive and uninjured, then comes dopamine to pull you out of it. There’s relief, and, under the right circumstances, maybe pleasure, euphoria, laughter.

The heightened emotion and intense arousal, and the relief-reward at the end, likely play a role in what attracts people to this ostensibly negative emotional state. This is especially true when you’ve chosen to expose yourself to it, and you’re consciously aware that the threat—heights, zombie, snakes, whatever—is not actually going to hurt you, which is one of the things that differentiates recreational fear.

Courtesy Dystopia Entertainment

“That realization that it’s not real, it’s fictional, it can’t harm you, I think that’s a prerequisite for deriving pleasure,” says Clasen. But it’s not the only thing.

A few weeks later, in an interview that spanned what Hannibal Lecter has to do with Mephistopheles, the terrors of puberty, and how a room full of evangelicals might react to a screening of The Exorcist, the philosopher Carroll told me that, theoretically at least, he thinks that our interest in horror is driven by a kind of curiosity and fascination with monsters. They usually represent a violation of the natural order—semi-human, or not as dead as they should be, or contorted in a way that doesn’t seem compatible with life—and we can’t look away. We draw additional satisfaction from horror stories themselves—the process of discovery, the awe and wonder at a tale well-told.

That’s what a place like Dystopia or any of the other innumerable haunted attractions around the world tries to offer—curiosity about what they’ll use to scare you, and how you’re going to handle it.

“One thing about horror is that you can test yourself,” said Carroll. “You don’t have to pay the price of exposing yourself to danger.”

In 2015, Clasen was giving a lecture at a high school about his theoretical studies of fear when he was approached by a college student studying nanoscience: Bøgh. An avowed horror enthusiast, he was inspired by the haunted attractions he saw when he had lived in California while his father, a priest, tended to the spiritual needs of Danish sailors. He was planning to start his own horror-themed attraction, and wondered if Clasen would consult about how to make it scarier.

“I want to encourage you to imagine a kind of cartoon situation where hearts are emerging from two people,” Clasen says to me.

“Yeah,” Bøgh says, “it was a meet-cute over a horror lecture.”

Clasen offered advice on ways to make the haunt more immersive—“How do you make people forget that it’s not real?”—and took an idea back to colleagues at the university. Dystopia could be a place to collect data on how people react to voluntary, safe, but really, really scary experiences. “It’s extremely challenging,” says Clasen. “And yet, it’s the greatest laboratory.”

Jonas Bøgh, Dystopia's "Architect of Fear," in his office at the former fish processing plant.
Jonas Bøgh, Dystopia’s “Architect of Fear,” in his office at the former fish processing plant. Jacob Papsø for Atlas Obscura

The upper levels of the fish factory are now offices, wardrobe, and makeup, while the haunt consumes the basement and sprawls out into what were once concrete holding pools. Each night during the Halloween season, up to 400 visitors will make their way through 50-odd rooms designed to unnerve, destabilize, and disorient.

The unsettling feeling begins right at the haunt’s entrance, where steel doors lead to an area that was once used for smoking fish. “Watch out you don’t step in the black stuff. It’ll smell,” Bøgh says. A dark, viscous goo still drips from the ceiling, source unknown, years after the last fish passed through the doors. Bøgh explains this year’s narrative, involving a sinister pharmaceutical company and a twist ending that directly involves the patrons. “We start off pretty hard,” he says. “Pitch black dark space, psychosis, trippy stuff, and then spiders.”

Bøgh guides us through his plans with the satisfaction of a chef describing a complex tasting menu. In one room, patrons will crawl through a tunnel to confront their fear of snakes. “We try to work a lot with creeping people out and basically removing their sense of security and safety,” with tight spaces and uneven floors, he says. He wants to weaponize people’s own imaginations with darkness and chaos. “Our experience is that people fill in the gaps with what they’re afraid of.” Also: “Never use red light in a room where you want the blood to pop.” The experience escalates to an outdoor chase through the holding pools, featuring zombie-like junkies and a visit from Dystopia’s mascot, Mr. Piggy—that large man with a chainsaw and the severed pig’s head mask. (One of the lab’s scientific papers blithely explains: “This muscular individual terrifies guests through a behavioral display of violent hostility and the dissonance-inducing mask.”) The degree of immersion of the haunt increases through the holiday season, from “scary” to “intense” to “extreme.” Even Bøgh doesn’t particularly enjoy going through the last one.

Jacob Papsø for Atlas Obscura

This is Clasen’s first look at the layout of the haunt—the rooms shift and morph year to year—where his team will try to execute another season of scientific study. I can see his mind at work, and he looks concerned. It’s a confusing, labyrinthine space. “Now imagine if it’s full of people,” he says, not just patrons, but up to 60 performers in makeup and costume. “It’s always a little chaotic because the place itself is really chaotic. I feel like I age 10 years every October.”

They started their work here in 2016, with questionnaires for patrons before and after the experience, and then graduated to capturing video, strapping on heart rate monitors, and measuring skin conductance to see how much people sweat. But it’s not a controlled environment. The haunt is dark and cramped. Groups move through in tightly choreographed 90-second windows. People sweat and run into each other and sensors fall off. Each night, Clasen has to go in to retrieve memory cards from the trail-style cameras. “I always get lost,” he says. “It always freaks me the fuck out.”

Now in their sixth year, it’s still a pain, but they’ve refined their methods of testing how our minds work, and have both lots of new questions and some potential insights into the nature of anxiety, and how to fine tune a horror experience for maximum satisfaction.

“It’s a lot of work,” Clasen says. “But it’s really worth it because the data is golden. You couldn’t get that data anywhere else.”

The first year’s study resulted in a typology of horror fans, and some insight into how different people handle fear. Based on questionnaires given to 280 people, the team found that visitors to Dystopia fall into two broad categories: what they call “adrenaline junkies” and “white knucklers,” and both groups are active in the way they manage fear. Adrenaline junkies want to maximize the thrill by keeping their eyes open, not shying away from the performers, and buying into the storyline. “I tried to remind myself that it was real,” one subject wrote. They reported a mood boost from the attraction. White knucklers, on the other hand, want to tamp down their fear. They cover their eyes, back away, and remind themselves that it is all theater. “I made fun of it,” one of them replied, “tried to see the funniness of it.” They did not report a boost in mood, but they were still satisfied: They had learned something about themselves, such as how they react under pressure or that they can tolerate more than they expected. Each type of visitor participates in creating their own individual horror experience, even though they’re both running from Mr. Piggy all the same.

Later analysis also showed there was a third category: “dark copers,” or people who turn to recreational fear as a kind of inoculation against a world they perceive as scary, including people with anxiety disorder. “It’s a kind of super-athlete of horror consumption,” Clasen says. These fans appeared to reap all the benefits—a mood boost, a sense that they had learned something, and personal development, such as a feeling of mastery over uncertain conditions.

If there was a moment that called for coping strategies, it was the Covid-19 pandemic. It slowed the research at Dystopia, but also presented an opportunity to bring some of the thinking about recreational fear into the real world. A closer understanding of fear—recreational or otherwise—could be the key to understanding psychiatric conditions, such as panic disorder, social anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, that often manifest as problems with emotional processing. “There are some research questions that are relevant beyond the haunted house, or even the phenomenon of horror, that we can answer,” Clasen says.

A couple of things happened in the early stages of the pandemic. People were afraid, on a global scale. Also, certain kinds of movies—horror, apocalyptic, zombie, as well as pandemic, such as Contagion—surged in popularity. A journalist who had once written about the Recreational Fear Lab tweeted at the team, asking whether they thought that horror entertainment was helping people cope with the uncertainty of the pandemic.

About 60 performers make Dystopia come alive—or at least undead—every October at the site of a former fish processing plant in Denmark.
About 60 performers make Dystopia come alive—or at least undead—every October at the site of a former fish processing plant in Denmark. Courtesy Dystopia Entertainment/Andrés Baldursson

“I was like, ‘It’s a good question. We should look into it.’ So we did,’” says Coltan Scrivner, a cultural anthropologist and behavioral scientist who works with the lab and now also holds a full-time position in UX research at Meta.

Scrivner, who specializes in morbid curiosity, led a study of 310 subjects to see how people who watch these kinds of movies reacted psychologically to the pandemic. Indeed, they reported feeling significantly less irritable, depressed, and anxious. They slept better, reported that they could still enjoy things, and felt more prepared for the future. The idea, Scrivner explains, is that certain types of horror experiences allow people to prepare mentally for the worst, which confers a kind of psychological resilience in the face of uncertainty. And uncertainty is how immediate threat–based fear pivots into anxiety.

“If you completely avoid threats and don’t want to learn about them at all, that works for a while,” Scrivner says. Indeed, many of us turned to sitcom reruns and jigsaw puzzles in early 2020. “But eventually you’re going to be faced with it, right? And eventually you’re going to have to deal with it. And if you haven’t played with that idea, if you haven’t practiced it, rehearsed it, you’re not going to be very well equipped.”

The Recreational Fear Lab is continuing to explore this connection between fear and long-term psychological well-being. In a current study they are surveying 1,600 Danish parents to ask about fear-based play among children, with the idea that experimenting with frightening situations—from peek-a-boo to climbing a tree to scary stories—might have a lasting, positive, protective effect against the development of anxiety disorder.

The idea could be that if you’re not exposed to fearful situations—as a child, age-appropriate—you’re not building up a cognitive, emotional immune system for later unexpected, surprising situations. “Swimming in the pool where they can’t reach the bottom, watching horror movies, playing scary games, listening to scary stories, being on their own without parents, can sometimes be scary,” says Marc Malmdorf Andersen, a cognitive scientist on the team. “Then [we’re] looking to see if it has any relationship to intolerance of uncertainty, which is something that we know is predictive of anxiety.

“I’m an overprotective parent, but this stuff [fear-based play], especially when it comes to my kids, it’s really something I force myself to do,” he adds. “And it is anxiety-provoking every time. But I have to learn it. I know that it’s good for them.”

UV grafitti on the wall sets the mood for visitors to Dystopia.
UV grafitti on the wall sets the mood for visitors to Dystopia. Jacob Papsø for Atlas Obscura

The Recreational Fear Lab’s latest Dystopia study—conducted in 2021 and not yet published—involves the phenomenon of interoception, or a person’s ability to decode the signals coming from their body, which might have clinical application for the study of anxiety as well. There are other hints, beyond the Danish lab’s work, that fear-based entertainment could have a therapeutic future. And those hints also come from haunted houses.

Margee Kerr, a sociologist, part-time faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh, and author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, first went to ScareHouse, an “extreme” haunted attraction outside Pittsburgh, while writing her thesis on the anti-vaccine movement more than a decade ago. “I’m reading about how fear can be a real negative for society, how it can be used to motivate action, how it can be a tool for a politician,” she says. “And yet, here I am. I want to be scared.”

What Clasen calls “recreational fear” she and her colleague Greg Siegle call VANE, or “voluntary arousing negative emotions.” Their study, published in the journal Emotion in 2019, involved measuring the brain waves of 100 visitors to ScareHouse before and after their experience. “It was honestly just pure discovery,” says Kerr, “like what was going to happen when we do this and how is brain activity going to change?”

They found that among those who reported an improvement in mood, there was a decrease in brain reactivity, that the brain “shut down” a bit in response to the overwhelming stimulation inside, which included being touched by the performers, being restrained or locked in a coffin, a simulation of having their lips sewn together, and a giant, active Tesla coil. The impact was akin to that of mindful meditation or even sexual activity, a kind of euphoria that might help with processing stressful situations. “But there’s so many questions that we need to answer,” Kerr says, “because we do know that different people respond to the fear in different ways.”

Kerr and Siegle are currently working on a way to bring this finding into the clinical world. If horror experiences can decrease the brain’s reactivity to negative or stressful situations, then it is possible that, say, zombies might have a place in exposure therapies used for conditions such as social anxiety disorder. “It’s like creating sort of an excitatory, gateway state that could potentially improve the quality of the treatment, which is really interesting,” she says.

Dystopia Entertainment/Jacob Papsø

Sarah Tashjian of CalTech conducted an extreme haunted attraction study as well, at a place called the 17th Door in Los Angeles—getting pushed underwater, having roaches crawl on you, getting shot with rubber bullets, that sort of thing. Tashjian is a developmental neuroscientist who studies the pathways of fear, using animal models or lab experiments involving electric shocks or spiders or the fear of losing money, to better understand how conditions such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder work, especially how the processing of psychological rewards might help buffer people in stressful situations.

She went into the study—also involving physiological measures and questionnaires—wondering whether people together in groups might find more comfort and less fear, like how zebras are more relaxed in a herd, a phenomenon known as risk dilution. In her case, the recreational nature of the attraction actually kind of got in the way of her interest in real fear. “It was certainly very, very messy and not the way we would typically like to do it,” she says, but there was an interesting outcome, the opposite of what she expected. The presence of friends actually increased the overall feeling of arousal—an emotional contagion. She attributes it to the fact that she was in a haunted house, a place where the fear was not a matter of survival. “We saw the emotional contagion effect rather than the risk dilution effect,” she says. “And I think it’s partly because they weren’t actually in danger and partly because it was a recreational activity, which we thought was really interesting.”

Clasen’s team has seen these group effects, too. Horror is, after all, best experienced with someone close to you. It even appears in their data, among people with close relationships traveling through Dystopia together. “Their hearts synchronize,” says Clasen.

If there was a breakthrough in the Recreational Fear Lab’s work in Dystopia, it came from data collected in 2017 and published in the journal Psychological Science in 2020. That was the first year they added physiological measures, infrared detectors, and surveillance cameras, along with the questionnaires. “It may be the study we’re the proudest of,” Clasen says, but it wasn’t easy. Andersen, the team’s cognitive scientist, had to integrate these streams of data. “So when we see the zombie jumping out of the hole in the table in the video footage, we need to know exactly what is the time on the heart rate monitor on guest 127,” says Clasen. Andersen had to sync and encode hundreds of hours of video. They pulled in a theoretical physicist to help with the data because it had grown so complex. “It just took months and months and months,” Andersen says.

Andersen is not a horror fan, but he was still interested in the work at Dystopia because his primary interest is play. “I met Mathias and we got to talking, so he told me about this Dystopia place where people pay money to get the shit scared out of them,” he says. “And we were talking about how this behavior just on the surface sounds a lot like play in children, how play is this behavior that’s really characterized by looking for uncertainty in your environment.

“There is something so interesting with horror in the media,” he adds. “It fucks so hard with your expectations, but that’s what the genre is developed to do, just really, really fuck you over and you think that maybe we’re safer, then all of a sudden, something completely unexpected jumps out at you, and then it sort of goes away again. It’s really wild that humans love that.”

When experienced as entertainment, fear can be euphoric.
When experienced as entertainment, fear can be euphoric. Dystopia Entertainment/Jacob Papsø

But some of us do, and when the research team asked visitors to Dystopia whether it felt like play to them, an overwhelming majority said that it did. The heart rate data told the same story. “We think that fun is some meta-cognitive signal that the brain produces when we learn something faster than expected,” says Andersen. “We like new things. We like things we can’t predict. So the thing about moderate uncertainty is that it is uncertainty that is learnable, manageable. And that is ultimately what we are rewarded for, when we learn fast. That is sort of candy for the brain.” And what’s faster than a jump scare?

But there is such a thing as learning too fast. Imagine the sensation of going from 0-to-60 in 5 seconds in a sports car. It comes with a feeling of power and speed. Now imagine accelerating from 0-to-100 in 2 seconds. It’s too much, the feeling of power is replaced by a loss of control, and with it, the enjoyment. It works the same way with recreational fear. Going into the study, the researchers assumed that the scarier the attraction, the more enjoyable it would be, but that’s not what they saw. “This is what led us to the ‘sweet spot’ discovery,” Clasen says.

“You can’t be in a state of abject terror for a long period of time. It’s not sustainable. You become overloaded in your system,” says Teresa Lynch, a media scholar at Ohio State University who studies, among other things, frightening video games. “When we hit a point of cognitive overload, it’s very unpleasant.” Fear takes a lot out of us, physiologically and psychologically, and your body doesn’t want to be in that state for long.

And this is what the data from Dystopia showed. People most enjoyed themselves when they had smaller swings in heart rate. Though it is different for everyone, even horror fans seem to simply have a limit, a place where it stops being fun. If the “arousal dynamics” are right, people can be in their “sweet spot.” Not not scared. Scared, but not too scared. Exhilarated but not overwhelmed.

“It seems that too much fear is actually detrimental to enjoyment, but moderate fear can be quite entertaining,” Andersen says. Now, if one can reverse engineer the sweet spot, then there’s a whole new dimension to the pleasurable side of fear.

The Recreational Fear Lab has shown that people who go to Dystopia or watch horror movies manage their own fear to get closer to their individual sweet spots. But what if an experience could actually change and adapt to find a person’s fears, put them in their sweet spot, and keep them there? On a cold, gray summer day, Clasen takes me to a brutalist building on the campus of Aarhus University. It’s the lab itself. In the anteroom, there’s a mannequin wearing a Recreational Fear Lab T-shirt and a Mr. Piggy mask, and a restrained, stylish mural depicting the faces of Michael Myers, Pennywise, Freddy, Jason, and more. Beyond that room is another, about the same size, with two large, comfortable loungers and a 98-inch television.

Thomas Terkildsen, who designs interactive experiences, has created a system in the Recreational Fear Lab that learns your deepest fears—and then uses them against you.
Thomas Terkildsen, who designs interactive experiences, has created a system in the Recreational Fear Lab that learns your deepest fears—and then uses them against you. Jacob Papsø for Atlas Obscura

It’s here that Thomas Terkildsen, a graduate researcher in the lab, is feeding a new creation, the Affective Player Experience of Fear—that is, the APEX of Fear. Soon, undergraduate volunteers will come here to watch horror shorts from the YouTube channel CryptTV. Each of these quick hits packs some atmosphere, creeping dread, and usually a jump scare, into less than half an hour. While they watch, Terkildsen will be watching them.

Terkildsen, who’s also an award-winning designer of interactive experiences, has built a system to create a stream of data from people as they watch horror movies. It’s a controlled environment, so the team can acquire all the information they can’t collect in the chaos of Dystopia. The system tracks respiration and heart rate and skin conductance, but also muscle tension in the shoulders and grip strength. There are proximity sensors for when the subjects lean in and cameras that track facial expressions. The idea is to create a stream of biodata, time coded with the scares in the films. “You’re hooked up to the matrix,” says Terkildsen, as he scans through the data feed.

This data will eventually feed into the next room, the size of a comfortable studio apartment, set up for virtual reality—empty but for a couple of computers, some mood lighting, and a Stephen King quote on the wall: “We make up horrors to help us deal with the real ones.” Terkildsen has designed a number of virtual reality fear simulations—enclosed spaces, heights, spiders—that will be the setting for APEX’s next step.

He plans to take all of the fear data from the first room and feed it to an artificial intelligence. The idea is to then let the AI adapt the fear simulation to keep you in your personal fear sweet spot. If you’re too afraid, it can shrink the spiders or turn up the lights. If you’re understimulated, the system can ramp up the fright by collapsing part of the ceiling or spattering blood on the floor. It is at least a little what it sounds like: A machine that eats fear to trap you in your own nightmares.

“But our point is the sweet spot of fear. We’re not trying to make you pass out,” Terkildsen says. The goal is about 85 percent of maximum arousal. “We don’t want you to have the most arousing experience all the time.”

Terkildsen straps sensors to my fingers to measure heart rate and skin conductance. These vitals will be visible on one of the screens on the edge of the room, along with a feed of what I see in the HTC Vibe Pro VR goggles.

Jacob Papsø for Atlas Obscura

The APEX of Fear is playable but still in the concept stage. It doesn’t actually know what terrifies me yet; it hasn’t consumed enough data to find arousal patterns that it can use against me. The experience they’re about to put me into is a first version of a calibration system, featuring all three scenarios. More will eventually be added and, once operational, the AI should be able to tell right away what scares me most. Then it will use my own vitals, and what it learned from undergrads, to keep me in my sweet spot. But it’s not quite there. “This is a more naïve version,” Terkildsen says. “It’s not that intelligent yet.”

“Take a deep breath,” he says, once he’s satisfied with the data coming from my fingers. “Follow my voice.”

Terkildsen built the sequences I’m about to experience himself. My mission is to pass through a space, from one end to the other, while looking around for a colored symbol somewhere in the environment. At the end, I will pick it out of a lineup, and then turn around and do it again.

First is a dank cave with water dripping and the clatter of falling stones. In reality, I’m in a large empty room, but I’m crawling and contorting myself to get from one end to the other. Another scenario is similarly dark: a basement with a serious spider infestation, and I can almost feel the webs clinging to my face. For me the greatest impact came from the heights simulation. It’s much brighter, I’m standing on the edge of a roof, with a plank extending to another building and the sound of traffic below. A bottle that stands in the middle of the plank tumbles off halfway through. I know the feeling of staring off the edge of a building, a tightness in my lower back and shudder through my chest. This is that feeling. I’m struggling to find the symbol, and I stumble while trying to look back. “It’s cleverly placed so you have to look down,” I hear Clasen say. “It seems like your skin conductance is spiking a bit here,” Terkildsen says.

Terkildsen saw in the data something that I told him ahead of time, that of the scenarios he had created, I’d be most afraid of heights. “The first peak when you come into an environment is the most important,” he says. When I stumbled, there was another spike.

“We’ve had people who are just incapable of crossing that beam,” Clasen says later. “And no one has tested it and stepped off.” At no point did I not know that I was in an empty room with a solid floor and plenty of space to move. “You have to make [the simulation] the dominant reality for emotions to occur,” Terkildsen says. This is related to a phenomenon known as presence, or a feeling of physical existence within a virtual world.

Lynch, who studies emotional processing, fear, sex, and gender in video games at Ohio State, sees this idea of presence play out in her work as well. She’s observed that realism, a first-person perspective, and interactivity have a strong impact on fear response. Control matters a lot, too, so she figured that players who had mastered the games they were playing—high-skill players—would be better at responding to or getting away from threats, and therefore would experience less fear while playing. “I actually found the opposite pattern, found that my higher skill players were actually more afraid, and it was mediated by this experience of presence,” she says. “They felt more like they were in the game. As a consequence of that, the threats felt like they were much more present with them.”

The sensation of presence can clearly be heightened in VR. “I think this tech is just so cool,” says Lynch, who plans to collaborate with the Recreational Fear Lab in the future. “It is allowing us to really understand human perception and how perception influences emotional production within our bodies.”

When the APEX of Fear is working to its utmost capabilities, the system could run through a dozen quick scenarios to assess one’s particular fears, and then put together a personalized scare experience. “You might see spiders, your friend might see rats or they might see blood on the floor instead of spiders,” says Terkildsen. “So we might use your phobias against you to manipulate your arousal.

Brains! Dystopia zombies go after Mathias Clasen and other members of the Recreational Fear Lab.
Brains! Dystopia zombies go after Mathias Clasen and other members of the Recreational Fear Lab. Courtesy Dystopia Entertainment/Jacob Papsø

“Afterwards the gloves are off,” he adds. “There will be jump scares. We are restraining ourselves to keep the scientific nature of actually having data that is only the result of you being in a phobia-inducing environment.”

It’s not hard to see the appeal. It could be a horror experience like Dystopia—in fact, Dystopia is planning to host an iteration of it. The technology could be licensed to game studios and herald a whole new generation of peripherals. Or, of course, the AI could just go ahead and manifest sentience. Cue the existential dread.

“There’s no guidelines,” Terkildsen says. “No one else is doing this.”