Monday, November 4, 2013

Immersed in fear: a study in design

This weekend, I took John on an early birthday date to Knott's Scary Farm. If you haven't been, imagine an entire amusement park transformed into a macabre scare fest, where you can't even walk from one destination to the next without something jumping out at you. All in all, we went through 11 haunted houses/mazes, saw a couple creepy shows, and even snuck in a roller coaster ride. We literally spent 6 hours surrounded by fog and freaks, screaming and laughing the whole time.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect before we went, but coming out of the experience, I couldn't help but apply my designer lens on what it was like to be scared for hours on end, and how it changed my behavior and thinking.

From the moment that you passed the ticketing gate, the experience began. Frightening characters accosted you as you tried to orient yourself, snapping some sort of clicking contraption so close to your face it was a wonder they never actually touched you. It was dark, the fog machines were in high gear, but you could still see the creepy people intermingled with the crowd, and just as you thought you had safely passed them, they would jump out at you or target you for spooking. If you showed weakness, screaming or otherwise obviously reacting, they would continue coming after you, and often others would join them. There was more than one occasion when we'd see a patron cornered, cowering, surrounded by spooks. It was unnerving, yet exhilarating, trying to face your own startle reflex and forgotten nightmares.

The haunted houses and mazes were worse, of course. Not just because of the closed in walls with creepers hiding behind curtains and in corners, and not only because the clicking in your face and the jumping out was was worse because you knew they were there, you knew what was going to happen, and it STILL made you scream.

And not just scream, but laugh...laugh because while you were scared to death, it was mixed with the
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relief of knowing that even as that killer clown was LITERALLY breathing down your neck as he followed you from room to room, you were safe knowing they couldn't actually touch you. We went through haunted maze after haunted ride after haunted house because we wanted to be scared but we knew there was no real danger, and that gave us the freedom to feel the fear and work through it.  We could laugh at the folly of our screams and yelps, knowing it wasn't really a vampires' lair or a BBQ joint where the sandwiches were made out can probably guess.

Even as we walked through paths between attractions, our radars were on high alert. We learned that certain scenarios increased your likelihood for an "attack"...particularly if you looked directly at them. Or if you were completely engrossed in something, like looking at a map (thanks, corpse bride, for smacking that out of my hands...good one. I was just trying to find the next maze...). Three hours in, we had seen enough other people attract the unwanted attention of the creepies and made enough of our own errors that we finally were able to make through a path (mostly) without being attacked, only to turn a corner to walk down a completely fog-filled path, where you could barely see the person in front of you, and no more. Surrounded by mist, we were vulnerable again, waiting for something bad to happen...but it didn't. It didn't even matter; after hours of raw fear, just walking through fog was terrorizing.

I relied on John to help buffer my fear, to assure me that if I was going down, it wouldn't be alone. While strangers would give you up or run away when the ghouls attacked, couples and friends physically clung to each other for support, screaming and laughing together.

This is what immersive design should do...elicit the emotions of a real event and challenge you to react and adapt appropriately, but give you the freedom to experiment and practice and fail and succeed and see what happens in all of those situations. Yes, we all would hope that we wouldn't be trapped in a post-apocalyptic gaming arena a la Mad Max's Thunderdome...but if we found ourselves there, there's a certain simulated arena in Knott's Scary Farm where we could practice.

I've never been scared for six hours straight. And I can't remember having so much fun. 


  1. Another key point is that the immersion heightened the experience. Because the spooks didn't stop when you exited a haunted house, our nerves never had a chance to settle. It caused our emotional responses to the spooks to exponentially grow. If we had been able to relax and peacefully get a churro in between mazes, our minds would have been able to recognize that the scare was turned off, thus separating it mentally from reality. Since there was no "off", we remained in that exhilarated state for six hours.

    1. Yes, and I probably cut off the circulation to your arm for at least five of those hours...