The Haunted House is an old-fashioned horror setting. We have all seen horror flicks like The Haunting and The Amityville Horror, The Sentinel, and Poltergeist.

It’s not only at the movies that we pay good money to frighten ourselves to death: commercial haunted houses are an integral part of 21st-century Halloween theater, with an estimated 5,000 such attractions operating in the United States each year.

Cinematic haunted houses have been portrayed in a consistent manner over time. Our annual macabre Halloween rituals include all the bells and whistles that we’ve grown to love (okay, creeps and groans).

Psychologically, carnivalofhorrors haunted houses can trigger feelings of fear and anxiety because they activate brain buttons that were developed long before the existence of houses. These alarm buttons alert us to danger and encourage us to be cautious.

Ghosted houses are not a direct threat, but because it is unclear if they pose a threat.

This ambivalence can leave you feeling numb and frozen.

It would be embarrassing and bizarre to run screaming from a house that makes it feel uneasy, even if you have nothing to fear. It could also be dangerous to ignore your instincts and stay in a dangerous place.

These are the psychological mechanisms behind feeling “creeped out.” They may be useful if they help you maintain vigilance when a threat is uncertain. These mechanisms can also be used to help you balance self-preservation with self-presentation (i.e., how you present yourself to the world in a desirable manner).

Although human psychology may explain why haunted houses are so frightening, it can also provide the perfect guide for how to make one.

Things that activate our agent detection mechanisms

Evolutionary psychologists propose the existence of agents detection mechanisms or processes that have evolved to protect us against harm from predators and other enemies.

You will feel more alert and aroused if you are alone in the woods at night and hear something rustling in bushes. You will behave as if you are being threatened by an “agent” who intends to harm you.

Overreacting can lead to little loss if it is a gust of wind, stray cat or other misfortune. If you don’t activate the alarm and there is a real threat, your mistake could cost you dearly.

We evolved to recognize threats even in uncertain situations. Large, old houses are home to many things that trigger hypervigilance for supernatural or natural agents. These include creaking and rattling in upstairs rooms, echoes, cold spots, and ragged curtains.

Feeling trapped

Research has consistently shown that we need more personal space while seated than while standing, more space when we are in the corner of a room rather than in the center of it, and more space in rooms with low ceilings.

When our privacy is invaded, we feel uncomfortable. This is especially true when escape seems impossible.

Such feelings of discomfort are symptomatic of the fact that we are constantly–even if unconsciously–scanning our surroundings and assessing our ability to flee if it should become necessary.

A haunted home is therefore our worst nightmare.

A haunted house is a typical example of a haunted house. It’s located in an isolated, remote location far from society (think about the off-season resort in The Shining). Even if communication with outsiders were possible, it would take a while for help to come if bad things occur. (Unfortunately, the telephones in old horror movies always stop working.

The house’s dark and confusing layout may make it difficult to find our way around. Hedges, iron fences, and crumbling staircases could make it difficult to escape. These are all prominent features in Hollywood haunted homes.

A view from the womb

British geographer Jay Appleton was the first to describe two crucial features that determine whether a place is attractive or frightening to humans: the more “prospect” and “refuge” a place offers us, the more attractive it is.

The refuge is a safe, secure place to hide from danger. Prospect is a clear view of the landscape. Attractive places offer us a lot of prospects and a lot of refugees, or what landscape architect Randolph Hester refers to as a “Womb with a View.”

Appleton said that these are places where you can see without being seen and eat without eating.

Most haunted houses offer us very little prospect and provide a high level of refuge for creepy-crawly creatures that will try to take us down. Research has confirmed that people experience such environments as unsafe and dangerous.

These places are also lacking legibility, which environmental psychologists call legibility. Legibility refers to the ease with which a location can be identified, organized into a pattern, and recalled. In other words, it is a place we can easily navigate around without getting lost.

The typical haunted home is dark and large with overgrown vegetation. It also has surprising architectural features like secret rooms and closets beneath staircases. Also, basements and attics are must-haves. Spider webs, bats, and rats make great accessories.

The older you are, the better

Many haunted homes have some kind of “legend” attached to them. It is usually a tale about a tragic death or an accident. You may also find a history of murder and suicide.

Because there has been more time for terrible things to happen, the older a place, the more haunted it is.

Moldy odors, old wall portraits, and antiquated Gothic or Victorian architecture create a feeling of grandeur. If the house is empty, any signs of life that are suddenly disrupted or frozen in time will only increase the fear factor.

A house with a half-eaten meal left on the kitchen table, or clothes on a bed that is awaiting a homeowner who seems to have vanished without warning can create a fearful ambiguity about what might have happened in the house. Bonus points are awarded to houses that are conveniently located near or on top of an old burial ground or cemetery.

People who believe in paranormal phenomena or have the expectation that strange things might be found in such places are more likely to engage in cognitive processing that incites fear. The perception of a house as haunted depends on more than its physical appearance. Just as important are the inherent beliefs of the person exploring the house.

These people can find it chilling to be in otherwise normal but uncertain environments.