A Very PharPoint Halloween: The Science Behind Fright

Day Three of #SpookyScience: Why Do We Enjoy Being Scared?

It’s Day Three of #SpookyScience, where we’ll be posting every day until Halloween about all things creepy and strange. So far, we’ve looked at why we get goosebumps and why we find screams so scary. Today, we’re digging into why those horror flicks and haunted houses are so popular.

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Halloween: A Time For Thrill-Seeking

When you think of Halloween, there’s probably a few activities that come to mind: watching scary movies, going to haunted houses, and dressing up as Freddy Krueger or Jigsaw, to name a few. Some people definitely enjoy these activities more than others, and each person has a different tolerance for horror and gore.

There’s no denying that there’s a huge market for fright, and a lot of people jump at the opportunity to get their hearts racing. Thrill-seekers are constantly looking for the most challenging and realistic scary situations, and this has led to new brands of terror, like the recent “extreme haunted house” trend. A prime example is McKamey Manor in San Diego, a haunted house that only allows four people to enter per weekend (and therefore uses a thorough participant screening process). Why? Because the experience is seven hours long, requires an extensive legal waiver to be signed, and is only safe for people in excellent health. And despite the many accounts of participants who are inconsolable and utterly terrified upon exiting the house, there’s a mile-long waiting list of people who want the same experience.

While there are few adrenaline junkies who are that dedicated to chasing a thrill, it still begs the question: when we’re hardwired to avoid danger and chase survival, why do we enjoy being scared? Better yet, why do we actively seek out situations that we find terrifying?

 

Brain Chemistry Determines Our Fear Threshold

First, it’s important to understand exactly what happens in our brains when we get scared. It goes back to the fight-or-flight response we experience in the face of potential danger, where a rush of adrenaline prepares our body to either challenge a threat or to flee from it. When we’re scared, a suite of hormones is released throughout our body to cause changes like increased heart rate, dilated pupils, and sweaty palms. One of the hormones released during thrilling activities is dopamine, a chemical that regulates the brain’s reward and pleasure centers – and the same chemical that has been associated with addictive and pleasurable activities.

Because of this, some people experience a natural high from facing a scary situation. It also explains why some thoroughly enjoy horror films and haunted houses and others detest them. All brains are different, and people have different amounts of dopamine release and re-uptake in these situations. Those who have large amounts of dopamine release will enjoy risky situations much more than those who don’t.

So our brain chemistry, instead of personal choice, is the factor that differentiates thrill-seekers from scaredy cats. But regardless of your dopamine levels, no one wants to be placed in a genuinely life-threatening situation. Where, then, must the line be drawn for fright to be enjoyable? How scary is too scary?

 

Safety and Security = Successful Scaring 

The ultimate rule of thumb is this: to enjoy being scared, we have to know that we’re in a safe environment. While watching Nightmare on Elm Street might quicken your pulse, your brain still recognizes that you’re on your couch with the door locked and no immediate threats around. This is because our brain is “lightning-fast at processing threat”, says Dr. Kerr, sociologist and expert in the field of fear. However, as soon as we become unfamiliar with our surroundings or there’s any possibility of harm, the situation is no longer enjoyable. And because each brain is different, we each have different boundaries for how safe an environment must be for the experience to be pleasurable.

These same conclusions can be extended to creepy things that are a bit less obvious than horror films or haunted houses. What do the Loch Ness Monster, the Chupacabra, and zombies have in common? They all defy the laws of nature that we generally take for granted. While many of these monsters carry their own cultural roots and significance, the ultimate fear factor is that we can’t explain them with the same rulebook we use to define the rest of the world around us. We can apply a similar logic to roller coasters, which allow us to soar through the air and flip upside down, defying the laws of physics that apply when our feet are on solid ground.

Searching for a good scare is not a new phenomenon. There are records of ghost stories as early as 1st century A.D., horror literature dates all the way back to the 18th century, and freak shows gained popularity in the 19th century. While the ways we find fear have evolved, the reason behind why we do it has remained the same, relying on our basic bodily reactions.

So when Halloween night rolls around and tricks and treats abound, whether you’re an adrenaline junkie or prefer to avoid being startled, you’ll now know why we enjoy the experience of being scared. Keep your surroundings safe and enjoy a night full of frights!

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