Camera traps are an important tool for wildlife scientists, who often place them along high-traffic animal pathways to catch unobtrusive photos. They’ve been used to conduct remote censuses of threatened jaguars and get a corpse’s-eye view of a vulture feeding frenzy…among other things.
Like capturing people’s extreme reactions as they get the pants scared off of them.
The Nightmares Fear Factory haunted house attraction of Niagara Falls, Canada, has been around for over 30 years, but it was in the mid 2000s that owner Frank LaPenna, inspired by automated roller coaster cameras, got the idea to offer customers pictures of themselves in the grips of shock and terror. (See more pictures of creepy houses.)
“At first I would stand in the dark with this little digital camera pointed in the direction of the people who were about to be scared. Literally taking a shot in the dark,” he describes. “Then I’d run ahead down to the lobby, pull the card out of the camera, and stick it into the computer to put the image up on the monitor for the people coming out.”
LaPenna’s setup has since evolved into something a little more sophisticated. Camera traps shoot pictures when a motion sensor is triggered—for example, when an animal walks through an infrared tripwire. LaPenna’s design is similar, except that the activation of the scare prop is what triggers the camera. His setup makes around 550 pictures of petrified patrons a day. And Nightmares is open every day, meaning they collect hundreds of thousands of scare pics a year. (Learn more about Halloween's surprising history.)
A bounty that poses a dilemma for scientists—of the heaps of camera trap images captured, only a slim portion provide useable data—has seen LaPenna’s business boom. In 2011, a viral story sharing Nightmares photos became so popular it crashed their website. (Since then, they prepare every year for the Halloween-time viral surge.)
It hasn’t always been the same for wildlife camera traps, which are quietly advancing good science the world over. Then again, we’re all animals at the end of the day—though not all of us seek the adrenaline rush of triggering a primal fear instinct.
“People think I’ve got skulls on the fireplace at home,” LaPenna says, admitting he’s actually not a fan of horror. “But that’s not it at all.”