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Building the Best Haunted House, According to Science

by Brian Nordli
October 24, 2017 | Living

The sun is setting on Friday, Oct. 13, and the deranged mutants inside the Realm of Terror are getting restless. Groans, shrieks and cackling laughter percolate through the room as a demon in a bloodied nightgown snarls and paces, anxious to begin. Nearby, ooze burbles from the mouth of a bloodsmeared mutant and a satanic priest in torn cardinal robes clutches his Bible.

The night is just beginning, and the collection of nightmares are hungry for a scare. Their leader, Steve Kristof, bursts into the room.

“Tonight is a night known for its bloodshed,” Kristof growls. “But tonight we will define that bloodshed, we will own that bloodshed. This haunted house has sat dormant for a week, and it’s time for the Realm to feed.”

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Realm of Terror owner and founder Steve Kristof shows off his haunted house in Round Lake Beach, Illinois, in October. Realm of Terror has been rated one of the scariest haunted houses in Illinois. Photo by Brian Nordli.

The cohort cheers and chants of “Rot” (which cleverly stands for "Realm of Terror") ring out. Then the actors take their places inside the house’s dark corridors, and another night of scare begins.

Welcome to the Realm of Terror haunted house in Round Lake Beach, Illinois, one of the top rated haunts in the state, according to HauntedIllinois.com.

Outside patrons shuffle up to the ticket booth with nervous giggles, clutching the arms of their friends or partners. A raunchy Santa Claus with a pale blue face harasses them as fog spills from the entryway.

“You guys suck; I hate you,” Santa barks at one couple.

Guests are led inside, where they watch a brief scene-setting film about a family cult that worships a demonic being called Rot. Then a cardinal in torn robes beckons them inside to sacrifice themselves to the family. The doorway opens. The customers crouch and enter the darkness.

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A group of actors dressed as mutants and demons wait for the show to begin at Realm of Terror in Round Lake Beach, Illinois, in October. Photo by Brian Nordli.

The art of the scare

Haunted houses have long been an ingrained part of the Halloween experience, but they rose in popularity in the 1990s, said sociologist Margee Kerr, who studies fear at Pittsburgh University and has authored a book on the topic, "Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear." For one month a year, fear-seekers and scaredy-cats alike flock to the attractions for a thrill.

Much like roller coasters, haunted houses offer a rare opportunity to feel danger and fear without actually being in it.

Kristof, 27, started Realm of Terror in 2003, when he was 13 years old. His parents, who owned a family entertainment center in town, helped him create a business plan and make it a reality. By 16 years old, he ran it himself.

“From the moment you walked in until the moment you walked out, you are part of this entirely different world,” Kristof said. “It’s like stepping into a movie. You just get to live somebody else’s creation for an amount of time. I loved that part of it.”

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An actor gets made up by Tiffany Beaudry before getting to work scaring folks at the Realm of Terror haunted house. Photo by Brian Nordli.

It started off simple, with people in masks jumping out to scare customers. Sometimes it worked, he said, but most of the time it didn’t. It wasn’t until 2006 that he and his team sat down to learn what scares people and why.

Manufacturing fear, he discovered, is about making people feel uncomfortable physically and psychologically. It’s about tight corridors with blind turns and cramped spaces, darkness and flickering lights to distort the room, air blasts to deaden senses, soundscapes of someone being tortured or whirring noises to make the house feel alive, and actors lurking in the dark ready to pounce on jumpy guests. The blood, guts and bodies help to make it feel like a different world.

Kristof and his team craft every detail to ensure it’s a one-of-a-kind experience.


“We always want you to feel like everything is caving in around you,” Kristof said. “It gives you a sense that you don’t know what’s coming next. If you think you know, you’re so off-kilter that that’s how we’re able to get you.”

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The horde of mutant and demonic actors get into character as they wait for the show to begin at the Realm of Terror haunted house. The attraction's founder started it when he was just 13 years old. Photo by Brian Nordli.

Making the unreal feel real

Kerr said the best haunted houses immerse guests into their nightmarish world without any hints of reality to prevent brains from catching on to the act. The attractions are then able to play off a person’s awareness and attention.

  • Awareness consists of the background details a person doesn’t actively pay attention to but informs the environment they are in, like the temperature, soundscapes, flickering lights and strange smells.
  • Attention, meanwhile, is what the person is actively observing, like the dangling organs from the ceiling or that deranged doctor lurching from a drop-down panel.

That's how a haunted house can make you feel like you're in a horror movie without the actual danger.

“A fully themed set design allows a person to pay attention to the scares or startles, while the awareness is doing the work of staying in that space,” Kerr said. “The good ones are designed so that they craft where your attention is focused. It’s not being drawn out and pulled by things that are out of place.”

From there, it’s important to hit them with a diversity of scares from auditory sensations to physical ones. By overloading the senses, the brain never has an opportunity to catch up and is always wondering what’s lurking in the dark.

“Fear is about uncertainty and the inability to predict what happens next,” Kerr said.

But there is a line—guests must always have a choice. They must choose to enter, and know that they can leave on their own free will. It’s for that reason haunted house-goers get a rush of dopamine and endorphins at the end despite feeling terrified.

“You can enjoy the feeling of making your body into a fighting or fleeing machine,” Kerr said. “When you make it out, you achieve something. You were stressed, you chose to do something you knew was scary and you made it out.”

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A creepy clown prop sits on a bench near the entrance of the Realm of Terror haunted house in Round Lake Beach, Illinois. Photo by Brian Nordli.

But there is a line—guests must always have a choice. They must choose to enter, and know that they can leave on their own free will. It’s for that reason haunted house-goers get a rush of dopamine and endorphins at the end despite feeling terrified.

“You can enjoy the feeling of making your body into a fighting or fleeing machine,” Kerr said. “When you make it out, you achieve something. You were stressed, you chose to do something you knew was scary and you made it out.”

Having fun with fear

But there is a line—guests must always have a choice. They must choose to enter, and know that they can leave on their own free will. It’s for that reason haunted house-goers get a rush of dopamine and endorphins at the end despite feeling terrified.

“You can enjoy the feeling of making your body into a fighting or fleeing machine,” Kerr said. “When you make it out, you achieve something. You were stressed, you chose to do something you knew was scary and you made it out.”

Inside the Realm of Terror, three sisters and their mom hold hands as they feel their way through the final maze, lit only by the brief flicker of light. With each flash, the walls feel like they are caving in and that someone is lurking.

Suddenly, an actor appears from the darkness snarling, and the women jump. They try to hurry, but the tight corridors and darkness make finding the way out of this maze long and difficult. Finally, they manage to step out into the open night, laughing and holding their hearts.

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Two actors dressed as a demon and bloodied mutant get into character before the show begins at Realm of Terror. Haunted houses started booming in popularity in the 1990s. Photo by Brian Nordli.

But there is a line—guests must always have a choice. They must choose to enter, and know that they can leave on their own free will. It’s for that reason haunted house-goers get a rush of dopamine and endorphins at the end despite feeling terrified.

“You can enjoy the feeling of making your body into a fighting or fleeing machine,” Kerr said. “When you make it out, you achieve something. You were stressed, you chose to do something you knew was scary and you made it out.”

Inside the Realm of Terror, three sisters and their mom hold hands as they feel their way through the final maze, lit only by the brief flicker of light. With each flash, the walls feel like they are caving in and that someone is lurking.

Suddenly, an actor appears from the darkness snarling, and the women jump. They try to hurry, but the tight corridors and darkness make finding the way out of this maze long and difficult. Finally, they manage to step out into the open night, laughing and holding their hearts.

Not far behind, another group makes it outside laughing and chatting about the experience. Each person has their own motive for entering a haunted house, but for most, it comes down to enjoying a good scare.

“It’s the adrenaline that gets the endorphins going and feels good,” said Letyce Moore, who went with her husband, John Moore.

For Kristof, it’s a chance to make guests feel something. Whether they laugh or scream, he doesn’t mind as long as they experienced a thrill.

“Any time you can find something that makes you feel something, that’s worth something,” Kristof said. “To be able to translate that into something that’s entertaining, that’s fun and is an experience. It’s awesome.”

Inside the Realm of Terror, three sisters and their mom hold hands as they feel their way through the final maze, lit only by the brief flicker of light. With each flash, the walls feel like they are caving in and that someone is lurking.

Suddenly, an actor appears from the darkness snarling, and the women jump. They try to hurry, but the tight corridors and darkness make finding the way out of this maze long and difficult. Finally, they manage to step out into the open night, laughing and holding their hearts.

Not far behind, another group makes it outside laughing and chatting about the experience. Each person has their own motive for entering a haunted house, but for most, it comes down to enjoying a good scare.

“It’s the adrenaline that gets the endorphins going and feels good,” said Letyce Moore, who went with her husband, John Moore.

For Kristof, it’s a chance to make guests feel something. Whether they laugh or scream, he doesn’t mind as long as they experienced a thrill.

“Any time you can find something that makes you feel something, that’s worth something,” Kristof said. “To be able to translate that into something that’s entertaining, that’s fun and is an experience. It’s awesome.”

Inside the Realm of Terror, three sisters and their mom hold hands as they feel their way through the final maze, lit only by the brief flicker of light. With each flash, the walls feel like they are caving in and that someone is lurking.

Suddenly, an actor appears from the darkness snarling, and the women jump. They try to hurry, but the tight corridors and darkness make finding the way out of this maze long and difficult. Finally, they manage to step out into the open night, laughing and holding their hearts.

Not far behind, another group makes it outside laughing and chatting about the experience. Each person has their own motive for entering a haunted house, but for most, it comes down to enjoying a good scare.

“It’s the adrenaline that gets the endorphins going and feels good,” said Letyce Moore, who went with her husband, John Moore.

For Kristof, it’s a chance to make guests feel something. Whether they laugh or scream, he doesn’t mind as long as they experienced a thrill.

“Any time you can find something that makes you feel something, that’s worth something,” Kristof said. “To be able to translate that into something that’s entertaining, that’s fun and is an experience. It’s awesome.”

Brian Nordli
Brian Nordli is a freelance journalist based in Chicago, where he writes about social issues, immigration and culture. Before returning to his hometown, he worked at a newspaper in Las Vegas covering crime, education and the city’s desert denizens. He recently spent more than a year teaching English in South Korea and traveling Europe and Asia. He hasn't been able to shake his craving for kimchi since.
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