Spooky sound

October 28, 2016

Psychology research set in Deadmonton haunted house

Have you ever walked into a supposedly haunted building and felt the hairs on the back of your neck rise? Maybe you felt sick or had an unexplainable urge to get out, run away—before it’s too late! Surely you encountered a ghost!

Or did you?

RELATED: Psychology students search for answers at historic haunted house

Two psychology professors have a scientific explanation for those strange sensations. Infrasound, which occurs naturally, is any sound below 20 hertz, which you can feel but not hear. Wind turbines, traffic and thunderstorms are the usual culprits. Guests and residents of older homes may notice infrasound caused by low rumbling pipes. Occasionally, people incorrectly attribute the sensations to something paranormal.

“We want to see if infrasound will directly impact feelings of fear,” explains Associate Professor Rodney Schmaltz, a social psychologist, who is working with Associate Professor Nicole Anderson, a perceptual psychologist. “I’m interested in how infrasound impacts people generally, and the role of expectation. Nicole’s interests focus on what’s happening at the sensory level.

“It’s a really nice collaboration in that sense that we're hitting different aspects of what potentially could be happening with infrasound.”

Because infrasound itself doesn’t cause fear (only amplifies the feeling), Rodney and Nicole needed the perfect scary location to conduct their research—a haunted house.

’Tis the season

IMAGE-story-Halloween_infrasoundCommercial haunted house Deadmonton opened its doors to Rodney and Nicole. “What we're going to do is bring the infrasound speaker we built into Deadmonton, and then we're going to test whether or not having it on will have an impact on how frightening people find the experience of going through the haunted house.”

The research takes place after hours (i.e., during the day) with volunteers who want to explore the haunted house and are fully aware of the research. “We don't want anyone going in who would be terrified of that sort of thing and for whom it would be an awful experience.”

Though it’s too early to say what the results of the research will be, Rodney would also like to explore the research in reverse sometime in the future—having volunteers engage in more lighthearted fare (watching a funny movie, perhaps), and then testing the effect of infrasound on the experience. “It might not necessarily be that infrasound causes you to be frightened or upset,” he says. “It could just be that it heightens overall arousal.”

Practical effects

The results of the research could have major implications, especially when it comes to one of the causes of infrasound mentioned above—wind turbines. Rodney has heard of people who live near wind turbines making complaints about being exposed to infrasound.

“We’d like to see exactly how infrasound impacts people,” says Rodney. “We want to know if infrasound is causing a physiological response or if expectation plays a major role. If infrasound really is having a negative impact on people who live by wind turbines, or any area with high exposures to infrasound, we need to find a way to help them. If the negative impact is due solely to expectation—that is, the belief that infrasound can make you sick—then we can help people in a different way, which would be by changing the expectation.

“At this point we don’t have the answer. This is the beginning of the research and we’re trying to figure out exactly what’s going on.”

Get MacEwan University news delivered to your inbox. Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter.

More Halloween-related stories:

Get MacEwan University news delivered to your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter