Ursinus’ Dr. Margee Kerr discusses how we feel about fear on “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee”

Emily Jolly


     For many people, there’s a sense of thrill in watching horror films or going to haunted houses, but have you ever wondered why some people love these things so much? Dr. Margee Kerr, Ursinus professor and sociologist of fear, has the answer.

    “We . . .  get the physical and natural high, so physiologically it can feel good because it’s all of the chemicals associated with feel-good states,” Kerr said.

     Extending her knowledge beyond Ursinus, Kerr recently appeared in a segment on the TBS news satire talk-show “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” on Oct. 25 to provide expertise on fear in relation to climate change.

     The episode featured an interview with Kerr, who spoke about fear as manifesting from a physical response.

     On the show, Samantha Bee mentioned a new poll that claims Americans are more afraid of clowns than climate change, and that over half of Americans believe humans are not responsible for climate change. Since “reason may not be enough to alarm Americans about climate change,” according to Bee, she turned to Kerr with the question: “Could we use fear to make people acknowledge that climate change is real?”

     “Well, climate change is so diffuse and abstract and people are like, ‘what is it?’ If we can make people experience it in their body too and say ‘Ok, this is climate change, this is the consequence, I’m in danger.’ All of our attention is focused on our body, on being ready to run or fight,” said Kerr on the show.

     She later elaborated, “We’re good at recognizing threats that are right in front of us and that we can wrap our mind around and even our hands. That something’s charging towards us and we can recognize the threat and feel an urgency to act. It’s harder to do that when it’s not right in front of us and when the idea is more abstract and so it’s the question of you know, if we made it feel as though it was that urgent, to replicate the experience of people who are living through hurricanes or heat waves . . . For a lot of people, they don’t have any frame of reference for any of the dangers that climate change can bring . . . Let’s make it real, and see if that changes people’s, you know, appreciation of the seriousness of it.”

     Kerr has been studying fear for a while now. After receiving her undergraduate degree from Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, she went on to the University of Pittsburgh to pursue a doctorate of sociology. She graduated from there in 2009. Kerr wrote her dissertation on how the idea that vaccines cause autism used fear to manipulate and scare parents into not vaccinating their children.

     Since graduating, Kerr has worked in various kinds of research related to fear including data collection and analysis for ScareHouse (a haunted attraction in Pittsburgh, PA), but she eventually wanted to switch gears. Now, Kerr is researching why we want to do scary things.

     Kerr explained that there are different kinds of fear, the ones we choose to experience and the ones that take us by surprise.

     “In America we have the social script for ‘fun-scary,’ this thing that we voluntarily choose to do that scares us, but within this protective frame, it’s not, you know, ‘fear-fear.’ Our emotions are constructed. They’re not these discrete, real kinds of things that exist within us; we make them in time and place,” said Kerr.

     Kerr continued to explain that “when we say ‘Oh, we want to be scared,’ it’s more like, ‘We want to activate our sympathetic nervous system within the context of friends and family and fun.’”

     Fear-inducing activities can help bring people together, according to Kerr. “Being with people we like in times of great stress can make us feel more closely bonded and so becomes a networking and solidarity building experience [that] builds really rich layers [of] memories that we then think about fondly.”

     Going through these experiences also gives the “psychological feeling of satisfaction and achievement . . . like running a marathon or rock climbing.”

     When she was originally approached by the producers of “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” in September, Kerr  was asked if she had ever thought about making a climate change haunted house–something they wanted to do–and she said she had always thought it would be fun and funny. Kerr then put them in contact with Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary, where she had a good relationship, and they created the climate change themed haunted house shown in the segment. People were then brought in to experience fears related to climate change.

     While the haunted house idea was fun, Kerr acknowledged some flaws in the production. “I think that we both knew the whole time that haunted house experiences like that are fun because we know they are fake, so you know it’s not going to likely be effective because there’s that knowledge, you know this isn’t real.”

     Instead, Kerr suggests first-hand experience. “Taking people to places that have been devastated. You know like we’ve all kind of forgotten about what’s happening in Puerto Rico right now but I’m sure they haven’t: They’re still dealing with power outages and [lack of] clean water, and for them the reality is impossible to forget. So, I think that outside of being able to see it first-hand, especially if people can personalize it . . .  just really putting a name and face and story to a thing can help people appreciate what is happening.”