Who's afraid of Ghost Stories?

Last Saturday Steve and I went to see Ghost Stories over at the Playhouse theatre in Liverpool. The performance acts out a series of ghost stories a paranormal investigator has collected during his research into the supernatural. As one can imagine the aim of such an experience is to provide the audience with a good scare. To make things a little more interesting we decided to wire ourselves up and monitor the changes in our heartbeat during the performance thereby allowing us to compare our subjective experiences with our own physiological reactions. The results provide an interesting look into how our expectations of the event met with its reality as demonstrated by the recorded changes in our heartbeat.

Before continuing, consider this your SPOILER warning. If you haven’t seen Ghost Stories and intend to see it at the Lyric I suggest you hold off for now as I am going to have to give away some of the plot in order to explain events in their proper context. If you’ve already seen Ghost Stories or don’t intend to then continue on and see who indeed was afraid of the Ghost Stories.

Ghost Stories Primer

Ghost Stories is performed as a mock presentation given by a paranormal investigator on the supernatural. The investigator presents several interviews he’s done with people who believe they’ve had a supernatural experience. As the interview plays out on a tape recorder, the perspective changes to a re-enactment of the event. There are four such interviews all of which have a similar structure. A scene is set, the tension is allowed to rise until the near end of the story at which point an event occurs to capitalise on that tension (i.e. the focus of the unease manifests, typically in a “jump-out-and-scare-you” fashion). The performance we attended started at 17:00 and would last for 80 minutes with no interruptions.

Physiological Interpretation

Both I and Steve have a resting heartbeat rate of roughly 60-70 beats per minute (see Wireless Monitoring Trials for more information). There are several events of particular interest in the data we collected which is shown in full in Figure 4. Please note, as we’re estimating the time where specific events occurred during the performance we can only concentrate on the more impressionable moments (and hopefully we’ve synched them correctly given we’re working from memory). These events include: the first few minutes of the performance, the surprise shocks ending the later three ghost stories and in particular the last surprise shock. In the following section I’ll describe our subjective experiences during the performance and how they manifested as changes in heartbeat rate.

Before the Performance

First let us begin with our preconceptions of the event. I myself have never been to a performance such as Ghost Stories. However Steve has, having previously seen The Women in Black. One of the reasons we were going to Ghost Stories was because of Steve’s experience at The Women in Black which was described to me as reducing the audience to (and I’m paraphrasing here) “cowering behind their seats, crying and screaming in fear”. Expecting a similar experience we decided to go. For one an event that could potentially elicit that kind of emotional response was just too good to pass up (I for one enjoy my horror games). As a result of Steve’s description of similar plays and the warnings that came with the performance’s publicity machine (e.g. posters, reviews, and the warnings I received from the ticket seller when I bought my ticket) I was already on edge before the play even began. As you can see in Figure 1 detailing the first 25 minutes of the performance (and two minutes beforehand) my heartbeat rate become elevated once it started. During this moment I was expecting some type of major scare given what I’d already been told before the performance. Subjectively this manifested as a great deal of unease (e.g. like the moment before opening up your exam results) however as the fake presentation droned on this very quickly dissipated. Unfortunately as I came to realise this initial unease would be the best Ghost Stories could induce in me.

During The Performance

The first ghost story takes place in a warehouse where a security guard is on watch. The tension is built up through a long pause of inactivity. The guard sits in his office for a while, a few minor things occur implying something is not right (e.g. another guard reporting being at unease) but nothing that points to the supernatural. Eventually the guard goes out on patrol hears a child’s voice call out, can’t find anything, then returns to his guard post. At this point everything falls apart: his electronics begin to malfunction, there’s a loud knock on the door beckoning him outside his office and one of the locked rooms in the warehouse opens up revealing a series of dolls and mannequins in which through movement of his flashlight reveals the presence of a little girl dressed in red.

The situation reminded me very much of Japanese horror films but especially Silent Hill and the search for Cheryl. Having overcome my unease at the beginning of the performance I felt the duration between the first signs of the child and the start of the story was too long. Essentially I was bored by this point (and disengaged) and remained so for the duration of the play, and so nothing of particular interest heart wise occurred barring a few minor jumps from the shock tactics they employed at the end of every ghost story barring the first one (see Figure 1). While the ghost stories provided a good narrative they were not particular scary so I didn’t really react to the scary environments they had created. The minor jumps that are in the data set could also be from the comedy moments which were liberally spread throughout the play which in itself broke the belief these stories were suppose to be scary.

However two interesting things did happen during the second and fourth ghost story. In the second ghost story a person is driving in the dead of night on a foggy lane at which point he hits someone who he abandons. As he drives away his car breaks down and the spirit manifests as both a monster that surprises from the rear of his car and as a drop down monster from the top of the stage.  The interesting response comes from Steve who having seen the actor playing the monster move into place for the car scene gets caught out by the drop down monster as shown in Figure 2 at 17:30-17:34. I on the other hand was pretty much disengaged at this point which probably explains my non-response.

The forth ghost story is the plot twist and focuses on the investigator and his own particular encounter with the supernatural. He finds himself alone with a baby’s crib which becomes the focus of the stage. At this point it was obvious I could tell something was going to come out the crib. And lo, and behold a deformed creature slowly crawls out. I had fully expected this and didn’t react at all at the physiological level. Steve on the other hand did not expect this and so his heartbeat rate skyrocketed when it caught him by surprise as can been in Figure 3 at 18:02-18:04.

Full Performance Recording

Below is a comparison of our heartbeat rates during the entire performance.


Ideally I would like to describe the data in better context (with exact time stamps for events for one) instead we have to go with the more impressionable moments. Sadly, the repeated use of shock tactics to scare the audience made it very easy to anticipate what was going to happen during the performance thereby making the subjective experience rather tame and subsequently our physiological responses as well. In the end the most hair raising event was when we decided to tackle the stairs on the way out as shown in Figure 5.

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About Kiel Gilleade

I'm a computer scientist with a background in the development of physiological interactive systems. I have worked on a range of physiological interactive systems, including computer games, interactive artworks and life tracking. My research interests focus on the development and evaluation of physiologically interactive technologies. I currently based in Antibes, France.

2 thoughts on “Who's afraid of Ghost Stories?

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