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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Gainesville Fear Garden debuts new theme: ‘The Haunt Lab’

The haunted house opened its first permanent location across from Depot Park

Vanessa Garcia adjusts her mask to scare participants at the Gainesville Fear Garden on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023.
Vanessa Garcia adjusts her mask to scare participants at the Gainesville Fear Garden on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023.

This article has been updated to reflect the correct class year for a Fear Garden staff member and to eliminate any mention of the Fear Garden’s thesis questions. The Alligator initially reported otherwise.

The first step of a tour through the Gainesville Fear Garden is putting on black-out goggles and surrendering to the mercy of a runner, a Fear Garden staff member who walks attendees through the experience while their trembling hands grip a rope. 

Actually, that’s not exactly true. The very first step is signing a comprehensive waiver and filling out a survey. After all, the haunted house is only part scare factory, and the other part is a genuine series of experiments conducted by UF staff and students. 

The house is run by Ken Swan and his wife Katie. Ken, a 37-year-old lecturer in the UF psychology department, first opened the Fear Garden in 2022 with limited staff, one of which was 21-year-old UF psychology senior Cristina Negraru. The house’s first year was humble. 

“The whole thing was in that tent,” Negraru said, referencing the 500-square-foot canopy that now hosts the crowds of people eager to wander through the house. “Last year there were many nights that we ran with four people.” 

This year, though, running with four people each night would be impossible. The house is too large and elaborate, and the lines are too long. Now the house depends on having at least 10 tour guides to tow gore-lovers through the labyrinth warehouse behind the bar. 

Once each person puts on their goggles and grabs the rope, the group begins its trek. With their sight gone, they rely only on the tug of the rope connecting them to walk through the bar, where patrons can use props like feathers and mannequin hands to startle them. 

In the center of the house, people remove their goggles and creep through the scares that await them behind each corner. The runners show no mercy, assigning each person a room in which they will be the first victim. 

Many studies are occurring simultaneously in the house. One, an experiment on the impact of combining fun and fear, involves researchers tracking participants through the house and monitoring their responses. 

“Our research committee specifically is in the house doing the behavioral coding and … scanning RFID bands,” Negraru said. 

This long term study happened at last year’s house as well, a plant-themed adventure in the dirt lot behind Flashbacks Vintage Store, but the reactions weren’t as strong as researchers were hoping for. 

“One of our favorite parts last year was obviously the psychology research that we were doing,” Negraru said, “but people aren’t really scared of plants, so we wanted to see, like, how people would react with things that are actually scary.”

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Thus, this year’s theme, “The Haunt Lab,” was born. The theme can be confusing for house patrons, many of whom believe the research aspect of the house is just a gimmick, but the Fear Garden staff members affiliated with the UF psychology department say that couldn’t be further from the truth. 

“We submitted posters to the American Psychological Association,” Negraru said, “and I actually got to go to D.C. with Ken to present our research.” 

The house is just getting its start in its new permanent location, but Ken and his team have plans to turn the Fear Garden into a Gainesville staple. 

“We’re hoping to make this, like, a permanent thing,” Negraru said. “We want to be able to be here through the … fall season, but also kind of expand it to, like, a year-round theme.” 

A permanent haunted house in Gainesville would provide mountains of data for the research studies conducted and an opportunity for Swan’s passion for haunted houses to flourish in every season. 

Contact Bea Lunardini at blunardi@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @bealunardini.

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