Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, by Margee Kerr

>> Wednesday, January 20, 2016

TITLE: Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear
AUTHOR: Margee Kerr

PAGES: 288
PUBLISHER: Public Affairs

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Non-Fiction

Shiver-inducing science not for the faint of heart.

No one studies fear quite like Margee Kerr. A sociologist who moonlights at one of America’s scariest and most popular haunted houses, she has seen grown men laugh, cry, and push their loved ones aside as they run away in terror. And she’s kept careful notes on what triggers these responses and why.

Fear is a universal human experience, but do we really understand it? If we’re so terrified of monsters and serial killers, why do we flock to the theaters to see them? Why do people avoid thinking about death, but jump out of planes and swim with sharks? For Kerr, there was only one way to find out.

In this eye-opening, adventurous book, she takes us on a tour of the world’s scariest experiences: into an abandoned prison long after dark, hanging by a cord from the highest tower in the Western hemisphere, and deep into Japan’s mysterious “suicide forest.” She even goes on a ghost hunt with a group of paranormal adventurers. Along the way, Kerr shows us the surprising science from the newest studies of fear—what it means, how it works, and what it can do for us. Full of entertaining science and the thrills of a good ghost story, this book will make you think, laugh—and scream.

Margie Kerr is a sociologist who studies fear. She combines academia with a job as sociologist in residence at a haunted house attraction. In this book, she combines stories of her work there with travels to different fear-inducing attractions (from physical fear, like roller coasters and the amazing-sounding outside walk around the CN tower in Canada, to mental fear, like the “suicide forest” of Aokigahara in Japan and an old abandoned prison) to explore what scares us and why we so often seek out these sensations.

My reaction to this was 'meh'. Fascinating subject matter, but the execution could have been much better.

First of all, the sections where Kerr describes the science around fear and stress-related reactions were quite technical and bored me a bit. To be fair, they are clear enough and not too long; it’s just that I’m not really that interested in that sort of level of detail on that subject. Also, we got too many pages that were more memoir than exploration of her supposed subject matter, and those didn't work for me at all. I guess I just wasn’t interested enough in Kerr, and it didn’t feel like she’d “earned” the right to make these chapters about herself, when we readers had come for something else. The worst chapter in this sense was the one about confronting the idea of death in Aokigahara (the “suicide forest” I mentioned earlier). That could have been a really interesting, creepy chapter (some key scenes in a really scary book called The Three, which I read earlier this year, took place there, and they were terrifying). It ended up being all about Kerr navel-gazing. There were some insights about what confronting the idea of death can do to people, but not enough.

Another aspect that made this disappointing was that the writing was not as great as could be. It reminded me a bit of Mary Roach, who too often sounds kind of lame, even though her material is fascinating.

The annoying thing was there were some really good bits here, and I wish those had been more developed. I liked the discussions about what sorts of things scare us and how, and why we like to expose ourselves to them. There's quite a bit of variety, and Kerr is good at drawing out what they have in common. And particularly good: there’s some stuff when she visits Colombia about what it’s like to live in a situation where you’re in constant fear all the time, and what that does to you. Kerr could have done so much more with that! There was also a short chapter at the end where the idea is that Kerr takes what she learnt in her adventures and applies them to creating an interactive (or possibly, as she mentions others call it, “extreme”) haunt in the haunted house she works in. That was really interesting, and I also wanted more.

MY GRADE: Disappointing. A C+.


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