Sound Inducing Panic
Updated: Nov 11
What the sound in our haunted house taught me about subconscious reactions
A memorable experience from growing up was trick or treating with my siblings at our neighbor’s garage. Just as we were about to get to the candy, our neighbor would jump out in a mask waving a chainsaw. Panic’d, we would take off running with the sound of the chainsaw reviving in the background.
This year, my brother and I were excited to create our own scary garage. We remembered that the sound of the chainsaw was what really caused fear, so audio was an important component of the experience. The concept was a spooky autopsy lab. We created two soundtracks. The first was an eerie ambient sound as they entered the lab and passed corpses on tables. The second, induced panic at a surprise moment. As trick or treaters reached into the bowl of candy a hand shot through the bowl and shrieking violins played (e.g. Pyshco) while lights flashed.
Almost every time the kids and adults would run for the exit, except for a few occasions when the panic sound failed to play. The hand still came through the candy bowl and the strobe lights flashed, however there was no associated sound. The participants reaction was very different. There was an initial shock and physical jump but there was no flight response.
I wanted to know why the reaction to no sound was so different. I discovered that is well documented that sound triggers our flight or fight response. As human’s evolved this reaction to sound developed to ensure our survival. Recent testing by the National Library of Medicine has shown that auditory reaction time is about 20ms faster than visual reaction time.
According to BrainFacts.org individual sounds, including frequency and distance are initially perceived by the auditory cortex located in the brain stem. This gives us our subconscious reflex to sound. After this initial reaction, sound goes on to be fully processed in the temporal lobe.
I didn’t expect sending panic’d children running for the exit to be a scientific experiment, but I did learn a lot in the process. I also hope we kept the tradition of our old neighbor going for the next generation.