ScareHouse has a 'secret weapon': sociologist Margee Kerr

Maybe it's a testament to the grueling nature of preparing a dissertation that Margee Kerr, seeking a respite from her self-imposed confinement when she was revising a doctoral thesis in 2008, opted to hang out with hideous freaks, ghouls and zombies.

Ms. Kerr's equivalent of a coffee break was the ScareHouse in Etna, which bills itself as "Pittsburgh's ultimate haunted house" and has earned accolades from national publications, trade magazines, horror movie directors and other outlets to buttress the claim.

"I was the first person in line. I've always loved haunted houses, I knew that was the place to go if I wanted to feel better," said Ms. Kerr, who earned her Ph.D. in sociology from Pitt in 2009.

A part-time professor at Pitt and Robert Morris University, Ms. Kerr's appreciation for the macabre also led to a job at ScareHouse, where she's worked since 2008 as an administrator, statistician and resident sociologist.

"Margee is definitely our secret weapon. She definitely keeps the place running," said Scott Simmons, ScareHouse co-owner and creative director.

Though the ScareHouse, which opened in 1999, had long taken customer surveys, Ms. Kerr added a new dimension, he says, polling not just on what aspects of the haunted house worked but what customers' fear most deeply.

"It was really her idea to go a little bit further," Mr. Simmons said. "Why don't we continue to take that further and see what scares them?"

Mr. Simmons said the research validated and elucidated haunted house standards, like killer clowns, for example.

"Running a haunted house for as long as I have, I've always known people are scared of clowns. When Margee started doing the polling and the research, we realized how widespread it is and how long it's been going on," he said. "It turns out, people have always been afraid of clowns. It's pretty wild." That approach has seeped into virtually every aspect of the haunted house's operation, including designing the scenery, costumes, characters, promotional materials and especially the new, individualized "Basement" experience, where customers get an uncomfortable degree of personal attention from the actors.

"It just sort of developed organically," Mr. Simmons said. "It's just been so beneficial and so fun."

Ms. Kerr, 33, grew up in Baltimore but has deep family ties on her father's side to Pittsburgh, where her grandfather and great-grandfather were heavily involved in Shadyside Presbyterian Church. She graduated from Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., before coming to the University of Pittsburgh to work on her master's degree in sociology, which she earned in 2004. Her work at the ScareHouse, however, and access to reams of data on what people fear, "opened up a whole new research genre for me," she says.

It was enough to earn her a book deal, and "Scream: Adventures in the Upside of Fear," will be published in 2015 by PublicAffairs press, part of the Perseus Books Group, in October, naturally.

The book had its origins as reaction to other scholarly works on fear-consumed Americans, such as Barry Glassner's "The Culture of Fear," which argued that perceptions of fear, not actual danger, were at historic levels.

"Then going to ScareHouse and seeing people lining up for this I thought, 'Something's not making sense here,'" Ms. Kerr said. "Why are we seeking out thrilling situations in a society that is supposedly totally consumed by fear?"

Ms. Kerr's book, based on her haunted house experiences, deals with "the real benefits of experiencing thrilling or scary materials." Those can range from the endorphin and adrenaline rush and confidence boost of surviving a dicey encounter to the stronger bonds formed in social groups that experience a scary situation together. Of course, there's an important caveat.

"To really enjoy thrilling situations, you have to know that you're safe," she added.

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