NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. -- Whether it's riding Phantom’s Revenge at Kennywood or running with the bulls at Pamplona, people just love setting themselves up to get the wits scared right out of them.
Sociologist Margee Kerr, explains the whys and wherefores of the thrill-seeking addiction at Penn State New Kensington’s fall speaker series, 7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 7, in the campus’ Forum Theatre.
Kerr, who holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pittsburgh, shares her insights into the science behind fear, along with the creative ways people engage with thrilling and scary material. She has researched the anticipation, suspense, adrenaline and excitement of fear, and why some people crave it while others loath it.
“I’ve been studying fear for a long time now, reading every historical, sociological, psychological, cultural, biological and neurological article I could find on the topic,” said Kerr, who did her undergraduate work at Hollins University in Virginia. “The more I read, the more curious I became, so I started collecting data from people who were, like me, seeking out thrilling and scary experiences.”
Not content to research the experiences of outsiders, Kerr needed to research experiences of an insider -- and she was the ultimate insider. Toward that end, she began a series of global adventures that challenged her own ideas and feelings about fear.
“I believe life is about exploration and adventure,” said Kerr, who grew up in Fallston, a suburb of Baltimore. “It's about looking behind the curtain, lifting up stones and not being afraid to venture into the unknown.”
She has made excursions to South America, Japan and Canada, as well as throughout the United States. Her escapades include jumping out of a perfectly fine airplane, and walking nearly 1,200 feet above ground on the edge of the CN Tower in Ontario. She blogs about her adventures on her website. The blog features videos, photos and snippets of what it is like to experience some of the world’s most extreme thrilling events.
“I want to know what it is like to come face to face with fears, thrills and just ‘out there’ experiences,” said Kerr, a resident of Pittsburgh. “How do we experience it physically, psychologically and socially?”
Her adventures will culminate with a book, “Scream: Adventures in the Upside of Fear,” focusing on how and why we enjoy thrilling and scary situations. Published by Public Affairs Books, it is scheduled for release in 2015.
“Most of my professional writing has been a means of communicating research findings,” Kerr said. “However, my true passion lies in integrating research with personal stories and narratives to engage the sociological imagination.”
A nationally-recognized expert on professional haunted houses, Kerr is the consultant for ScareHouse, a haunted attraction in Etna, a suburb of Pittsburgh. The fear researcher works with ScareHouse creators on being scientifically scary, as well as developing, implementing and analyzing data on customers and employees. The ScareHouse was selected in 2010 to the list of "The 10 Wickedest Haunted Houses in America" by Forbes Magazine.
“My primary responsibilities are collecting and analyzing data on what scares people and helping to build thrilling and scary experiences for the public,” Kerr said. “I love it and look forward to the continuing evolution and growth of the industry.”
She is in demand as a speaker throughout the year but especially during the Halloween season, September and October. She has made guest appearances and been interviewed on numerous national and local media outlets, including CBS News and NPR Essential Pittsburgh.
When she is not raising the anxiety level of the general public, Kerr can be found in the classroom, raising the anxiety of college students. She teaches sociology at Robert Morris University, University of Pittsburgh and Chatham University. As with her researching acumen, her pedagogic style draws upon her experiences -- as an undergraduate and doctoral candidate.
“I feel it’s my responsibility to give back and provide students with the same quality experience I had,” Kerr said. “I make every effort to include students in my work at ScareHouse and encourage them to get involved in their communities. I believe that providing real-world opportunities to students is integral to their success.”
In addition to scary stuff, Kerr has extensive experience in writing scholarly articles on the history of medicine and doctor/patient communication.
The Penn State New Kensington Speakers Series is funded through a program established by Russell C. Swank III. Campus faculty and staff, as well as alumni and friends, have contributed to the series.
Tickets for the talk are $5. Students with college or high school identification are admitted for free. The series is open to the public. General admission seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis.