Tuesday Study Club met for a second meeting of the season at Jane Bailey's. Jane's home was beautifully decorated with the colors of the season. After dealing with the business side of the club, Kathleen Carel gave an appropriate program for this time of year:
With Halloween upon us, we are once again reminded that we like to be scared. There’s just something about creepy and frightening things that we want to invite them into our lives and even celebrate their existence.
The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, is reputed to be the most haunted house in the world: more than 1,000 ghosts are allegedly in residence. This house originally belonged to Sarah Winchester, who was the widow of William Wirt Winchester, the gun-manufacturing magnate. Construction of the house began in 1884, completely unguided by any sort of coherent building plan, and it continued unabated until 1922. Rooms, whimsical architectural features and different wings and floors were added haphazardly, resulting in a rambling, bizarre puzzle of secret passageways, stairways and alcoves. There are doors that don’t go anywhere, and windows with views into other interior rooms. There is even a room constructed specifically for conducting séances. At its peak, the house had more than 500 rooms, more than 10,000 windows, and many dozens of fireplaces and stairways. The Winchester Mystery House is a place where one could very easily become lost, and there are real scientific explanations for why people believe that ghosts thrive in such habitats. It is, in short, a very creepy place.
Why do places such as the Winchester Mystery House creep us out and induce feelings of disorientation and dread? These places possess combinations of features that humans have evolved to regard with caution, either because they were associated with the presence of predators or natural hazards, or because they provide limited sensory information and restrict freedom of movement in a way that could impair our ability to deal with an emergent threat.
There are different types of creepiness, and the array of things that creep us out range from dolls that are too lifelike to clowns in places where clowns should not be. However, the kind of creepiness most applicable to places is explained by a theory that has been called  the “threat-ambiguity theory” of creepiness. This theory was originally applied to people rather than places. The basic premise is that those who in some way fall outside of the norm put us on our guard because they are unpredictable, and it is unclear whether they pose a threat or not.
So we get creeped out by people who behave in bizarre and unpredictable ways and violate the subtle social conventions that enable us to understand their intentions. In other words, they are an ambiguity: are they someone to fear? This ambivalence is the psychology behind feeling “creeped out.”
Places can creep us out for the very same reasons that people can: by presenting us with ambiguous information that makes it unclear if the place poses a threat or not. Places have this effect on us because they activate an evolved psychological adaptation known as an “agent- detection mechanism.”
The cinematic portrayal of haunted houses has remained remarkably consistent across time: they are like “real” haunted houses on steroids. They give us the creeps not because they pose a clear threat to us, but rather because it is unclear whether or not they represent a threat, and so the agent-detection mechanisms mentioned earlier are on full alert.
Things that activate hypervigilance for natural or supernatural malevolent forces abound in large, drafty old houses: rattling or creaking sounds in an upstairs room; the sighing and moaning of wind passing through cracks; ragged curtains fluttering in the breeze; echoes and cold spots. It is very easy to imagine that one is not really alone in such a place.
It is no accident that the prototypical Hollywood haunted house is in a remote, isolated location, far removed from the rest of society. If bad things happen, help would be a long time coming, even if communication with the outside world were possible. Conveniently, in old horror movies the telephones always stop working.
Given how easily we are creeping out by haunted houses and other spooky places, why would we ever intentionally expose ourselves to them? How have commercial haunted houses, with an estimated 5,000 such attractions operating in the United States each year, become an integral part of 21st-century Halloween theater? Under some circumstances creepiness and horror can be seductive, as evidenced by the sums of money we spend each year on horror movies and commercial haunted houses. Clearly, for many people, the creepy can have a peculiar “allure.”
Psychologists link anxiety from ambiguity to why we find some people or situations creepy. A study showed that people who go to scary attractions find their moods improving and stress levels lowered. Scary situations can produce a euphoria and a sense of achievement. While we may know what we find creepy, some of us certainly enjoy a good scare.
After Kathleen’s interesting program, Jane served a delicious homemade cheesecake along with some good fellowship time that closed our meeting.

Howell County News

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