Jason's View

The Haunted House Effect: Understanding Sensory Overload

28 Oct 2015 by Jason Harris
Image: 123RF.com

One of my favorite holidays is Halloween, for a number of reasons. One way I celebrate is by watching documentaries on horror. The reason is, I am too scared to watch horror movies alone, but the documentaries are kind of scary but not too scary. Some of my favorites are the ones that show different haunted houses across the country.

One of the things I have learned in these documentaries is that the way haunted houses make you easier to scare is through sensory overload. When you go through a haunted house, before they even scare you with props or actors, they tend to have flashing lights, over-the-top scenes, loud noises, smoke or fog, and more. Our brains are wired to not actually take in every bit of information around us. Haunted houses use this fact in a couple different ways. They overwhelm you, as well as use diversions to put scares somewhere your brain is not focused.

This can be much like it is for someone who is experiencing sensory overload in everyday life. From personal experience, I know that when a person tries to take in too much information all at once, it can cause them to freak out. We can see this happen with people in haunted houses—they have huge reactions of fright, even though what is happening, rationally, they know is not real. The overflow of information before the scare makes the brain so heightened that it is out of a rational mode and into a reaction mode, and causes hysteria in that moment.

These extreme examples can help us realize what is going on with someone on the spectrum or who has sensory problems in general.

These extreme examples can help us realize what is going on with someone on the spectrum or who has sensory problems in general. What most of our brains can filter out normally (unless in a situation like a haunted house) people on the spectrum or with sensory issues cannot. For example, I myself have trouble filtering noise in a loud room and tend to hear all the noise around me over the person right next to me. When this becomes too much, my brain cannot take all the information handling and I can short-circuit. This can happen as well for people with claustrophobia. While the room may not seem too small to you, the person with claustrophobia may feel the response of being unable to escape easily which can cause the brain’s fear response of short breathing and trying to find a way out. We can see this in haunted houses too, as they will use smaller spaces and people who have gotten hurt trying to find a way out.

If you want to understand what someone who has sensory overload, claustrophobia, or other quirks or fears that may cause a look of hysteria, going to a haunted house can help you understand what is going on inside the brain of that person. Haunted houses take normal environments into an extreme, and that extreme will appear much like it does to the person who experiences them in situations you might not understand.

Jason Harris

Founder of Jason’s Connection – an online resource for those with disabilities, mental health, aging and other needs. Jason was awarded an M.S. in Cultural Foundations of Education and Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies from Syracuse University.  Jason is also a Project Coordinator and Research Associate at the Burton Blatt Institute, an international think tank for Disability Rights and Human Justice at Syracuse University.  He regularly contributes to the blog in his own series called Jason’s View and travels the country consulting and speaking about disability issues and rights. To read more from Jason Harris, read Jason's View