Review: ‘Scream’ by Margee Kerr

Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. Margee Kerr. PublicAffairs. 274 pages. $26.99.
Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. Margee Kerr. PublicAffairs. 274 pages. $26.99. AP

Margee Kerr is a fear junkie. Roller coasters, haunted houses, heights, abandoned prisons, ghosts (well, maybe), even death — she confronts them all.

But she’s also a sociologist, and she has taken on the most-daunting task of all: writing a book about the science and history of fear that is enjoyable to read without also being entirely unscary. Describing fear second hand is hard — you really have to be there — but Kerr mixes enough self-awareness and insight with her tales of fright to show how the scariest place in the world is inside your head.

Kerr’s love affair with fear began early. A ride on the Comet, Hershey Park’s oldest roller coaster, at age 11, and an encounter with a faux corpse at a Scottish highland fair in Maryland, and she was hooked.

In Scream, Kerr travels the world in search of greater fears. The author climbs aboard the steepest roller coaster in the world, the Takabisha at Fuji-Q Highland amusement park in Japan. The 3,300-foot, two-minute ride features a 121-degree loop in which the track, 141 feet above ground, curves back against itself. “As the car inched forward over the peak,” Kerr writes, “my legs started shaking uncontrollably, and I kept repeating ‘Oh my God.’ … Finally, the car tipped over the apex and dove toward the ground. I started screaming louder than I ever have before, as tears streamed down my face.”

She repeatedly visits the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania — now run as a museum and haunted house, it was a pioneer in solitary confinement — first to experience the terror of time alone in a windowless, pitch-black, underground cell and later with a ghost-hunting team in search of a paranormal experience. Armed with cameras, thermometers, electromagnetic field meters and tennis balls (you’ll never guess what they’re for), the group stalks the prison at night. Kerr is soon “caught up in the energy, hovering behind them at arm’s length, observing intently. … I realized I was believing.”

Kerr goes deep into the biological and scientific definitions of fear, rather than dismissing the experience solely as an emotion. Conceptually, fear spans various kinds of threats (acute, potential, sustained) and losses; physically, the amygdala, which processes threats deep within our brains, triggers instant reactions throughout the body, while other parts of the brain gather information for more critical, deliberative evaluation.

The stimulating effects of fear are often quite pleasurable, of course. “No wonder people are standing in line four hours for a two-minute thrill,” Kerr writes. For others, it can elicit sweating, chest pounding, dizziness, the feeling you’re about to die, a classic panic attack. Kerr experienced some of the latter sensations on the top of the 116-story CN Tower in Toronto, where guests can take the EdgeWalk beyond the observation deck, strolling around the tower on a five-foot-wide walkway, without guardrails, strapped to a harness, peering over the edge.

Kerr lapses into something of a formula at times, devoting each chapter to a scary experience, interspersed with scientific and sociological explanations, with a bit of autobiography thrown in. Some of her asides are particularly captivating, as when she reveals the sexism of America’s haunted-house industry; its likely future integration with theater, virtual-reality and video-game environments; and the historical treatment of monsters in film as a means to protect viewer sensibilities.

One of Kerr’s overarching conclusions: There are few fears as scary as the ones we create, ponder, consider in our minds. Even the most-famous monsters are of our own making, Kerr reminds us, cautionary tales for human excess. Godzilla reveals the dangers of nuclear waste, the zombie apocalypse follows a breakdown of social order, and the machines rise up when we can’t manage technological breakthroughs. The real fear — the scariest character — is still us.

Carlos Lozada reviewed this book for the Washington Post.