Goose Bumps: The Science of Fear


of an Exhibition

by Paul Orselli

Published on May 21, 2010, Modified on October 02, 2010

  • Description:

    I went to visit the Goose Bumps exhibition while it was at the Liberty Science Center. I had my family (my wife and four children ages 13, 10, 8, and 4) in tow to be able to gather their reactions as well. We visited the exhibition on a busy weekday when LSC was filled with camp groups of various ages.

    The Goose Bumps: The Science of Fear exhibition was developed by the California Science Center with partial funding by the National Science Foundation. The Science Museum of Minnesota was responsible for exhibit design and fabrication.

    As I was first entering the Goose Bumps exhibition, I thought about the things that often frightened me. Of course, being an exhibit designer, and being inside a museum made me naturally think about things like excessive label text and vaguely framed exhibit interactives. Unfortunately, many parts of Goose Bumps exacerbated my designerly fears. In many ways, Goose Bumps seemed to be a schizophrenic exhibition. Parts seemed to engage visitors while compellingly encouraging them to examine their fears, while other areas of the exhibition seemed determined to squash any interesting topics under an avalanche of technical label text.

    Immediately upon entering Goose Bumps, you encounter the “Coping With Fear” area, a literal “wall of text” that details the types of fears one may encounter throughout the different stages of life and ways to cope with those fears. As you might expect, the day camp crowd didn’t spend much time reading the wall here (and honestly, neither did I).

    Several exhibit stations near the entrance of Goose Bumps deal with the relationship of the brain, and its structures, to the mechanisms of fear. This section could have easily been entitled, “More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About The Amygdala.” I’m not sure how many times the word “amygdala” was featured in the title and text of the labels and graphic panels (I lost track!) but if there was one piece of information I left Goose Bumps with it was that the amygdala equals fear. There were also various sections of animal brains that you could examine to see the (you guessed it) amygdala! After a while, I began to realize that none of the two or three camp groups inside the Goose Bumps installation was spending much time with the brains and amygdalas either. Where was everyone?

    The central area of the exhibition, the “Fear Lab” consists of large, blocky forms strongly colored with dark black and deep red colors. Each of these monoliths was covered with text-laden graphic panels and inset video screens also displaying a lot of text. The graphics usually contained the photograph of a researcher who that studied some fear-related topic alongside a description of the researcher’s focus and the science behind it. While these large pieces of exhibit furniture may have deliberately been designed to create a foreboding atmosphere, they also had the unintended consequence of giving me completely unimpeded access to read and photograph the labels and graphics. Visitors seemed completely uninterested in these text-heavy component areas.

    This may have just been a result of the particular group dynamics going on when I visited the exhibition, but I also think the content presented in several sections of Goose Bumps was fairly self-evident. It may be that visitors didn’t need to spend a great deal of time with message sets like “your heart beats faster when you are scared” or “ your facial expression changes to indicate you are feeling fear.” Even reliable “kid magnets” like computer stations and touch screens didn’t seem to have their normal holding power in the “Fear Lab.” Their on-screen content seemed unable to find the visitors’ “sweet spot” (either too simplistic or bogged down with scientific jargon) but, as noted above, the bulk of the material presented was textual, despite being screen-based. It was interesting, if not downright frightening, how many times I heard young campers telling each other, “let’s go see something fun” as they scampered out of the more didactically science-based exhibit areas.

    So where were all the people in the Goose Bumps exhibition? It was clear from just standing back and watching the crowds, that two areas were the most popular places in the entire exhibition.

    The first was the “Fear Challenge Course.” This part of Goose Bumps consisted of four smallish rooms placed right next to each other. Each of the rooms had an entrance/exit doorway and a viewing window opposite, so that other visitors could watch the action from the outside. Four strong human fears were represented inside each respective room: Falling, Electric Shock, Loud Noises, and Creepy Creatures. As you entered a Fear Challenge room you encountered a large, attractive set piece that you could interact with in some way. For instance, the Creepy Crawly room had big tanks filled with snakes and spiders. Attached to the front of these tanks were large tubes that terminated inside open-front boxes that you could stick your hands into. Even though everyone, at some level, must have realized that the exhibit developers wouldn’t really deliver a lethal shock or have us come in contact with snakes or spiders, there was still hesitation and lots of interaction between strangers in the Fear Challenge rooms. This tension between intellectual and emotional responses to fearful situations was nicely done, and one of the most compelling aspects of Goose Bumps.

    The other very popular area in Goose Bumps was a computer-driven immersive environment by artist Scott Snibbe called “Freeze Game.” As you entered the space, a projected version of your silhouette was seen on a screen in a jungle type environment. Your challenge was to move carefully and gather electronic “fruit” but to also know when to “freeze” if a predatory jaguar came near. If you successfully reached the other side of the screen/jungle, your avatar won. If not, your electronic silhouette was eaten! The novel immersive interface, as well as the intellectual/emotional tension inherent in the primary activity greatly contributed to the success of this component.

    As I walked away from the Goose Bumps exhibition, I kept wishing that the creative team had been able to better integrate the “fun” parts of the exhibition with the “scientific” parts. Unfortunately, it seems that Goose Bumps shares this same schizophrenic way of exhibiting scientific topics with most North American science centers. That is, science exhibit components are framed in ways that are either as dry as dust or as frenetic as an amusement park ride. There seem to be fewer and fewer examples of exhibits that let visitors discover the elegance inherent in scientific phenomena without either slathering it in neon-colored touch screens or burying it under a ton of didactic label text. And that may be the scariest thing of all.

    This review is based on an article that first appeared in Exhibitionist (Fall 2008) Vol.27 No.2, and is reproduced with permission.

Latest Comments (2)

sometimes art works better

by Jason jay Stevens - May 27, 2010

Funny review, Paul.
It’s a pity such an experiential topic was treated so academically.
Seems like Goose Bumps may have benefitted from more artists being involved in the development, and fewer writers of copy.

Emotions for learning

by Penny Wheeler - October 02, 2010

Thanks so much for this review Paul.

I have just read a journal article by Falk and Gillespie where they used this exhibition, when it was in LA, as an ideal environment to measure visitor arousal (enjoyment) and its impact on immediate and delayed (4-6 months later) learning.

The visitors to the Goose bumps exhibition remembered the exhibition, reflected on it, and talked with friends about it, more than the control group (people who went to other exhibitions in the same centre that day)

Details are:
Falk, John H. and Gillespie, Katie L.(2009) ‘Investigating the Role of Emotion in Science Center Visitor
Learning’, Visitor Studies, 12: 2, 112 — 132

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