Science, Fear, and Film: A Month of Adventures

Science, Fear, and Film: A Month of Adventures

1 year ago 0

When I finished my book I made a promise never to stop exploring this incredible world. I learned so much about myself, culture, and other people by choosing to “opt in”, to say “yes” even when it’s scary or the outcome is unknown, by choosing not to fear change. April has really put my new commitments to the test, and repeatedly reminded me how easy it is to say these things without actually living them. Because, when you do, it’s messy, hard, and not everything always works out the way you think it will.

For example, sometimes you have to take a beat to have two of your cervical Screenshot 2016-05-02 13.46.32vertebra fused together. I didn’t have an accident or anything, I apparently have really crappy bones (cue “Facts of Life” theme song).  But then, some things work out way better than you ever imagined (and you end up with one of the coolest photos of yourself EVER, and one bad ass scar). So, I figured, I’ll keep opting in and prepare myself for the ups and downs.



April started with a trip out to the iconic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park with Amy Bruni and her crew of paranormal investigators and purveyors of all things cool, creepy, and supernatural. I went along to speak about the science of sensed presence; basically what research can tell us about why we might feel like we are not alone in the room. Choosing to fully opt in, I thought you know what, why not collect some data while I’m there?

The Stanley Hotel

The Stanley Hotel

My study “Ecological Emotional Experience Protocol” through the University of Pittsburgh allows us to collect data in the real world with the goal of capturing emotional experiences as they occur in natural settings (e.g. outside of the lab). We’ve collected data at haunted attractions, why not a paranormal investigation?  More than just curiosity that motivated me, after all it’s not a simple task to add a site, write new protocol, gain permission from Strange Escapes and the IRB, calibrate the mobile tech, and run the actual lab on site.

I believe there is a lot we can learn from gathering this type of data outside the lab, especially from populations who are voluntarily engaging in what are considered “scary” or at least intense situations. I’m not trying to prove or disprove the existence in the paranormal. I’m interested in understanding how these experiences impact the mind and body, so we can better understand our emotional lives, and add greater depth to the practice of affective science in general.

2016-04-10 21.05.13

For the first time (to my knowledge), with help from my fabulous research assistant Amy Hollaman, we collected psychophysiological data under a university approved protocol from volunteers participating in a paranormal investigation. In addition to asking survey questions, we collected participant heart rate and skin conductance as they investigated the Stanley Hotel. We further captured when they felt close to a paranormal experience by having them tag the moment via an RFID card (this puts a kind of digital flag on the data). This allows us to look at what their bodies were doing around the time they felt something supernatural.

The weekend was a huge success; my presentation went great and I collected some unique data. However, I also came down with the worst head cold I have ever had and ended up loosing my voice for two weeks. BUT! I did not let this stand in the way of attending what was a truly epic the following week.

Ommegang brewery held their Game of Thrones inspired beer release party for the second year at Eastern State. Amy Hollaman and the events team did an amazing job of turning the historic prison into the Seven Kingdoms, complete with iconic characters.

While my cold and sore throat kept me from enjoying the delicious brews from Ommegang, I did get to snap a photo in the very cool GOT’s throne.

I spent a good week not talking as much as possible, which was a challenge.  I would be speaking the last week of April at the Franklin Institute, and I didn’t want to sound like a frog (I still did a little).

The Franklin Inlogostitute hosts a Science Festival every year, and this year they dedicated a night to the science of fear and invited me to speak. I was incredibly nervous. Usually I know the audience I’m speaking to and can tailor the talk, but this event was open to the public, who knows who will show up. I thought about playing it safe, e.g. just keeping it super  professional and academic. But after some power posses, some words of encouragement, and remembering to say “yes” even when it’s scary,  I decided that it’s OK to be myself. I can be excited, passionate, and even a little humorous without diminishing my words because I am confident in who I am, which is a passionate academic. It’s OK if people don’t like me, life is too short to try to be someone else just to make other people happy. This lesson was powerfully driven home for me the very next day.

The day after the festival I was on a plane headed back to where my month began: the Stanley Hotel. This time Amy and I were going to attend the Stanley Film Center Symposium. The Stanley Film Festival has big, BIG plans, which you can read about here.  Creative breakout sessions, presentations, and dinner conversations with some amazing and accomplished people; it was more than a little intimidating. But I quickly learned that these folks are successful because they own who they are, and their right to be in the room.

I was so inspired by the women I met there, who were strong in so many different ways; Ruth Vitale, 
Jessica Chandler,
 Medeni Griffiths, Diana Vargas, Deborah Jordy, Kim Johnson. These women are powerhouses and aren’t waiting for anyone’s permission, or approval, to be who they are and do what they know they can do. They don’t wait for invitations, they do not let fear keep them from expressing their ideas, and if they want to make a point, by god they will keep pushing until they are heard. And critically, they taught me there are many, many different ways to be heard.

I am so incredibly thankful to all the attendees at the symposium. In the past, sitting with a whole bunch of successful people would induce a deep feeling of inadequacy, making me want to  crawl into a cave or bury my head in the sand until the feeling passes. Not anymore.  Yes I feel overwhelmed, and honestly scared, but not in a bad way.  I don’t feel inadequate, I feel inspired. I learned that life is more than opting in, or saying “yes” even when it’s scary.  It’s about taking out the machete and clearing your own fucking path (I don’t typically swear, but I just spent three days with horror writers and directors, and sometimes you just need to swear).

There is so much I want to learn and see, and so much I have to share, and none of that is going to happen if my head is buried in the sand waiting for the fear to pass.





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