And in that heart-hammering, skin-crawling moment, I think to myself: where else do people pay $82 to get chased by a man holding a chainsaw? Of course, it’s a fake chainsaw, and of course, there’s not really an abnormally tall demon chasing me, but my admission into Universal Studios Hollywood’s iconic Halloween Horror Nights has made me think the truly terrifying and bizarre to be true.
I had the pleasure of attending what’s affectionately known as HHN for the first time this year, and I went into the event prepared to analyze the psychology behind what I was experiencing. As someone who has always been fascinated by the fact that people love to pay hundreds of dollars annually for a cheap thrill around Halloween time, I was excited to see what all the hubbub surrounding HHN was about, and whether or not I would fall into the same trap that has fascinated me year after year.
Upon my arrival at Halloween Horror Nights, I knew the fun in it lay in three central principles about the human mind: we love to get scared when we know it’s safe, we love to bond with people we experience that fear with, and the hormonal high from having scary fun is addictive. Looking back on my time at Universal, I can confirm the validity of all three of these items a million times over.
For this experience, I ended up bonding with my mother; considering we’re already pretty close to each other, I was curious to see how we would use our dynamic in reaction to fear. She’s not particularly a fan of jumpscares or HHN’s demographic, and I was a newbie to the entire event, so we were essentially going in blind. To ease ourselves into it, we made a plan: arrive early (when the sun is still out), go into a not-so-scary maze (Stranger Things), and not get scared, because, how bad could Stranger Things really be?
Those would end up being our famous last words. We got to the park early, as planned, and even though there were no “scare actors” (people who pop out at you from seemingly nowhere) roaming the park, I was still on edge. The anticipation of getting jumpscared, and really, the fact that I didn’t know when it would happen, furrowed within my heart, psyching me out even before we entered the maze. In line, my mom and I were cracking jokes to the background of ‘80s rock playing overhead. Inside the soundstage that held the maze, that same music became our worst enemy. It was loud, obnoxiously so, and stripped us of our sense of sound. I suddenly began to piece together exactly how Universal is so good at scaring its guests: they deprive visitors of their senses. Everywhere, the sound was loud—chainsaws, thematic music, screams, the list goes on. Couple loud noises with intense strobe lights and a flurry of maze-appropriate smells (sewage water is, in fact, an appropriate smell for some mazes) and Universal has an easy-to-scare crowd on their hands.
After having that revelation, I walked into the Stranger Things maze with my head held high and my arm clutching my mom. I tried to remember that the maze was a safe fear—that nothing bad was going to happen to me, and that I was going to make it out alive and okay. That attitude lasted until I rounded a corner and was startled by my first jumpscare: a slamming door. From that point on, I was on high alert, adrenaline flowing, mind in fight-or-flight mode, arm still wrapped tightly around my mother who seemed more startled than I was.
Until we were out of the maze and in the sunlight, my mom and I were connected at the arms, gripping onto each other as if it would reduce the amount of fear we were experiencing. But as scared as I was, I also noticed how excited I was: the grin that painted my face upon exiting was huge. It was then that I realized the hype behind HHN—I was having fun getting scared and I could easily see myself paying the same or more amount of money to do it again, and that was only after one maze! I was a victim of the psychological effects I had studied and honestly, I didn’t mind at all. It was fun to get scared but know that I would be physically okay in the end; it was exciting to know that my mom and I were both going through the same thing and having the same response to it.
The results were the same for the ensuing maze: Ghostbusters, Creepshow, Holidayz in Hell, every maze produced the same effect without fail. I challenged myself to walk in front of my mom for some mazes, and hid behind her back in others. I wanted to be as objective as possible in my analysis of why HHN is so successful and popular, and I think I really understand why. For whatever reason, our brains are programmed to love feeling like we’ve survived something dangerous with people we’re close to, even if we know we were never actually in danger. I’m sure the same principle could be applied to anything in life, but Halloween Horror Nights was the starkest example of survivalist psychology I’ve ever experienced, and I know that my mom feels the same way.
So my conclusion on why people pay so much around Halloween season? It’s wonderful to get scared sometimes. Events like Halloween Horror Nights allow you to let go of the pressures and stressors of regular life and focus instead on “surviving” something unlike anything you’ve ever encountered in day-to-day life. I couldn’t have been happier to put my daily life on the back-burner to get scared by people in masks for a few hours. So what if that desire is fulfilled by a Halloween-themed event? If people like me are willing to pay to get scared by a man holding a chainsaw, there must be a meaning to the madness.