A Master of Terror: WSU graduate, mentalist takes on new role at Fear Factory

Jul 30 2013 - 6:20am

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Courtesy photo
Anthropologist, mentalist and WSU graduate Paul Draper has been hired to help put the scare in Salt Lake City’s Fear Factory.
Courtesy photo
Anthropologist, mentalist and WSU graduate Paul Draper has been hired to help put the scare in Salt Lake City’s Fear Factory.
Courtesy photo
Anthropologist, mentalist and WSU graduate Paul Draper has been hired to help put the scare in Salt Lake City’s Fear Factory.
Courtesy photo
Anthropologist, mentalist and WSU graduate Paul Draper has been hired to help put the scare in Salt Lake City’s Fear Factory.

Paul Draper has accumulated lots of job titles since his Weber State graduation.

He has been a mentalist, showcasing his talents through a Las Vegas show, on tour and on television. He has travelled, giving workshops to Fortune 500 and health care companies on how businesses can predict people's thoughts and reactions, and use the information to best serve clients.

And just recently, Draper added a new unofficial job title: architect of terror.

"I hope it won't make my health care clients reject me," Draper said, laughing.

Draper, 34, was hired by Salt Lake City's Fear Factory, which describes itself as an extreme haunted attraction. It's prepping for a reopening Sept. 13 (a Friday, of course) and hired Draper for tips on maximizing fear.

"We had about 80 actors there, and we visited the set and costume designers and makeup artists to give feedback," he said of his workshop. "Most haunted houses just have people jump out and scare customers. Fear Factory has robots for that, and hires actors to create stories and structure to target a wider variety of fears."

As for what draws out the most intense primal fear in humans, Draper suggests a look back at primal humans.

"We've been around, in some form, for 1.8 million years," he said. "Change is slow. At our core, we humans are still flawed creatures made of mostly carbon and water. What scared us 100,000 years ago scares us today."

Draper earned his 2002 WSU degree in anthropology, with a communication minor, and earned his master's at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His grasp of anthropology, brain function and behavior is the basis for his careers, both as a mentalist who directs and predicts decisions of audience members, and as an anthropologist and corporate trainer.

"I don't have to worry about starving to death in my first world experience," he said. "I don't have to worry about being hunted by a lion. But for most of the history of humans, our fears were based on very real threats."

Draper said modern humans don't really see much of what is around us.

"We don't see what is below, because nothing hunted our ancestors from below," he said. "Nothing hunted us from above, either. So we evolved to scan the horizon. We truly do not see the ceilings and floors in our lives."

Which makes ceilings and floors prime real estate in haunted house surprises.

"All we really can see is something about the size of a thumbnail on an extended arm in from of us," Draper said. "We try to move our eyeballs and scan, but our eyes jump and pop along. All the points we don't see, our brain puts together memories to make us believe we are seeing them. When we are texting and driving, we are not seeing. What we think we are seeing is a memory.

"What we see as reality isn't actually reality. It's our brain coping with what information we are given."

Draper, who owns homes in Holladay and Las Vegas, said he has worked with several neuroscientists on projects regarding how our ancient brains cope with modern reality. Natural selection shaped our brain evolution, Draper said. Individuals with mental and visual traits that kept them alive long enough to procreate passed on the genes we have today.

Draper also advised the Fear Factory on a video preshow during which actors can detect tour groups' prevalent fears from body language.

"The workers can pass information through the haunted house," he said. "The girl in the red shirt doesn't like creepy crawlies, and the tall guy doesn't want to get on his hands and knees. Members of this group hate clowns, or loud noises. The house can use their roving characters to target groups."

Loud noises also signaled serious threats to our distant ancestors. Disfigurement and insects were signs of disease and death, which our most successful predecessors tried to avoid.

Humans also have plenty of anxieties not related to being killed and eaten.

"Humans do pattern matching. We find cause and effect, even if it doesn't exist in reality," he said. "Some smart person way back when noticed people who don't wear hats in the desert die, so hats became lucky. Someone walked under a ladder and got hurt, so walking under ladders was bad luck. Some casinos in Las Vegas don't have a 13th floor because the number is considered unlucky in the West, or a fourth floor because four is considered unlucky in Asia.

"The MGM Grand used to have a giant lion people had to walk under, but they did a million-dollar renovation to move it to one side. Walking under a lion's mouth is to Asia what walking under a ladder is to the West. They wanted Asian customers to come in and gamble, and they did."

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