Scare Acting 101 - Understanding How Fear Works

Scare acting, just like any job, is something that most people will want to get better at every year. When I first got into scare acting I started doing research on scare acting techniques, haunted attractions, why people go to them, and how the brain actually reacts to being scared. 

If you're the type of person that can't drive a fast car without wanting to look under the hood, to see what makes it run so fast, then you'll understand where I'm coming from. I'm sharing what I have learned and experienced because I hope it will be interesting and helpful to other haunt addicts like myself. So here we go:

Brain Matters

The thing that really piqued my interest early into my scare acting career is how the brain actually handles fear. There are many different reactions people get when they're scared. Some people scream or run, others seem ready to take a swing at you and some just freeze in their tracks. This is a result of the fight or flight reflex. 

But it also seems that sometimes things that terrify some people don't even phase others. How can that be, why such a wide range of different reactions? Better yet, how can we use the knowledge of how our brain processes fear to make people even MORE scared in our haunts?

Our brain is our most important organ...according to our brain (just saying).

The Science of the Scare

How a human brain processes fear is actually very interesting, but there's some "science" involved. The first part of the human brain that responds to danger is a small region in the middle of the brain called the Amygdala. This is the part of the brain that reacts to stimuli and determines that a threat may be near and alerts other regions of the brain of the potential impending doom. It sends a message basically saying: "pay attention home slice, stuff is about to go down".

The amygdala basically "pulls the fire alarm" the instant it smells smoke. It signals the adrenal glands to release stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, into the bloodstream. Blood pressure and heart rate also increase, pupils dilate, and lungs expand. 

While alerting multiple parts of the brain, it also alerts the hypothalamus to trigger the fight or flight response. This is the portion of the brain that will tell someone to run like a scared bunny or take a swing at the threat (which may only be an innocent and hardworking, scare actor). This is all done subconsciously and automatically, and typically people are not consciously aware of it. 

This is why some people swing at a scare actor and apologize seconds later, it's an instinctive reaction.

What's that? You said you're scared?

These signals are also processed in frontal lobe, which is portion of the brain that determines logically whether the threat is real or not. The frontal lobe is doing this while the hypothalamus has already told their body to either throw a punch or use their date as a human meat shield and throwing them in-between themselves and the threat. The entire process only takes a few seconds. The resentment from their date lasts much longer.

Have you ever been in a life or death situation or something that may cause a similar reaction, like skydiving or shopping on black Friday? When you look back on it, the entire process that took seconds but seemed like it all happened in slow motion? 

There is a reason for this, and it really did just take a few seconds. But once the amygdala activated all of those portions of the brain, they all started "recording" at the same time.

Normally our brains "filter" a large amount of the information it receives from our senses. There's usually just too much going on for our conscience brain to focus on all of it, so our brain ignores the unimportant things like birds chirping or first year actors bragging about their big scare. But when a threat is present our brains turn off the filters and record all of it and that's why it seems slower when you remember it. The event was normal speed, your brain is actually remembering it slower.

This is a survival skill, your brain is saying "this is a threat, and if I survive it, then I want to know what to do to avoid it the next time it happens".

So, how do we take advantage of this?

Knowing how the brain handles fear gives you a distinct advantage on how to scare people. A Jump scare will trigger the fight or flight response in a guest it will take them several seconds to determine it's not a threat, and now they also have a very angry date to deal with if they used them as a human shield.

We also know that the frontal lobe will eventually determine if the threats are genuine. So, jump scare after jump scare will be a lot less effective over time as they recognize it is not a real threat. They will probably also have time to realize that any form of intimacy with the irate date is probably off the menu for the next few weeks.

What did I tell you about using your date as a human shield? 

The brain has a threat assessment system that can be fooled. Hooray for us!

We still have instinct to try to keep us from getting killed. Fear is not a useless reaction from days gone by, it's a survival response we use to stay alive and recognize danger. But now we look for the guy with a knife instead of a saber tooth tiger. Which means we still have the (sometimes unfortunate) trait of using that instinct to anticipate terrible things that might happen.

We react to stimuli that we know to be dangerous from learned experience. We have never been in a plane crash but we buckle up and grab the hand rests during takeoff. We never met a real chain saw killer but we know to run like Forest Gump if someone remotely close to Leatherface comes near us with a chain saw.

So, to make it plain and simple:

Take advantage of the automatic instinct to anticipate a threat. The Amygdala is easily fooled, but if you give the other decision-making parts of the brain stimulus to anticipate danger as well, you can fool the entire brain.

Cool, now how does that help my haunt?

Many haunts start with a big scare right at the start. This puts the guests immediately in the threat evaluation mode. Now, the key is to deal with the logical portion of the brain and convince it that there is still a threat. 

The single most important element to scaring a guest is getting them to "suspend disbelief" and consider that they could be in real danger and ignore that they are in a haunt. So, you will want to have the next room be a creepy room with items that encourage the brain to continue to anticipate a threat. For example, follow a room that had a jump scare with a room filled with knives and swords hanging from the wall and someone creepy in it.  

These should be zones that make the guest uncomfortable and uneasy. You want to build the sense of dread and foreboding. Letting the logical brain confirm that the fear centers were right all along and danger really is looming. 

THEN, have the next room with a jump scare or an aggressive scare actor. End result, their date is now thrown at the threat in self defense, and someone goes home single and embarrassed because they peed a little.

The scare actor laughed at me when I peed!

This is the roller coaster ride you want to continue throughout the haunt, slow building suspension and then a sudden shock. 

If this all seems familiar it's because this is the formula that horror movies figured out many years ago. This is why the victim wanders around the dark house for several minutes to investigate the noise, building the tension, before they actually get killed. Lord forbid they turn on a light.

If the movie was just killing people the entire time without the building tension it would be numbing after a while. It becomes predictable, like a Hallmark Christmas movie where you know the city doctor is going to fall in love, learn to like the quaint townsfolk and save the Christmas festival.

Kenneth Leary is the author of Practical and Theatrical Scare Acting. He has worked in in the haunt industry since 2012 and is a year round student of scare acting and haunting in general. The purpose of this blog is to help others benefit from his research and experience in a humorous and informative way. He can be contacted at for questions and comments. He doesn't get paid for this, so he's not too full of himself yet and will be happy to talk to you.


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