This time of year invariably turns thoughts to all matters frightful and what it means to face our fears — whether you’re a devout fan of the horror flick genre, holding a séance or simply considering a macabre costume.
Recent times have tasked us with facing our fears more than ever, in a way. With terms like “massacre” bandied about so often, the recently released Survey of American Fears from Chapman University reflects how our biggest fears are basically a checklist comprised of daily headlines: topping this year’s list of biggest fears are corrupt government officials (check), losing our healthcare (check) and environmental pollution (conditions are now ripe for even more of a check).
When real life can mimic a horror movie, we’re constantly reminded about the fragility of our existence. Yet that’s not enough of a scare for those who still feel compelled to seek out frightening experiences — even find them cathartic. It begs the question: Why do some of us like to be scared?
This is Your Brain on Horror Movies
As counterintuitive as it sounds, fear can feel good to some people. It releases dopamine — a feel-good chemical — in the bodies of certain individuals, says Margee Kerr, PhD, sociologist and author of SCREAM: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. Indeed, studies that explore how dopamine and fear are intermingled exist in abundance.
Christopher Bader, professor of sociology at Chapman University and one of the authors of above-mentioned survey, agrees. “Fear responses produce endorphins, which can be a sort of natural high,” he explains.
Scientists have long examined fear from a physiological perspective. According to a 2007 study, every brain experiences fear and anxiety (because the overruling emotion in anxiety is fear) differently — and you may be more vulnerable to it depending on how your brain is shaped. Your amygdala, the part of your brain connected to and just behind the prefrontal cortex, is in charge of what makes you afraid and how you choose to express it. People who suffer from anxiety already have prefrontal cortexes that look a little different than other folks. What’s more, the study showed that people suffer from two distinct types of anxiety disorders and the brain works differently in each: folks suffering from fight-or-flight panic disorders and PTSD had an underactive prefrontal cortex, while those with worry-based anxiety, like OCD and generalized anxiety disorder, seemed to have an overactive prefrontal cortex.
Fear responses produce endorphins, which can be a sort of natural high.
Kerr says other "feel good” chemicals can also come into play with fear, namely endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. “The neurotransmitters and hormones that are released are helping us prepare to fight or flee, at the same time our attention is shifting away from abstract thoughts and focusing on issues of survival,” explains Kerr.
This shift in thinking can set the stage for a feeling of escapism. “Our thoughts can just take a break and we can enjoy being fully in our bodies, feeling primal and animal. When you’re on a rollercoaster or in a haunted house you’re not thinking about your bills, your classes, your relationships or your future,” says Kerr. “As soon as we realize that we’re not in fact going to die we can enjoy the arousal response — that's when fear can be fun. You’re in the moment, and afterwards you feel like you overcame a challenge, so you feel more confident about the real, not ‘scary fun’ threats that await you in the future. It feels like a sense of accomplishment, like running a marathon or rock climbing.”
Our thoughts can just take a break and we can enjoy being fully in our bodies, feeling primal and animal.
There’s a caveat — that you have some sense of control and are safe, like when you’re on a ride and you know you can get off. Bader explains: “People don't generally like fear when they don't have some sort of control of the situation. For example, going to a haunted house at Halloween is fun because it will be scary but you can also leave whenever you want. People also differ in how much control they need to feel to enjoy a situation which will impact the extent to which they can enjoy a ‘scary’ situation.”
Another factor that determines how much we might embrace fear is whether the scary scenario we’re dealing with plays into any existing phobias we might have. “Some of us are just terrified of snakes which is idiosyncratic and difficult to predict,” says Bader.
We All See Fear Differently
Similarly, Kerr says the associations we make based on our experiences with fear also have to do with what we find fun. “There are folks who have had a bad experience with haunted houses or horror movies, and associate all things in the ‘fun’ scary category with feeling bad. Or, they were never exposed to ‘fun’ scary and therefore have no frame of reference for why or how something scary could be fun. Those who are more open to scary experiences tend to like them more than those who have less need for affect, or who simply don't enjoy any intense emotions,” she says. Seeing as we all see fear differently, how does it affect how we see each other? On the other hand, in real life scary scenarios, fear can cause us to isolate and even turn on each other, says Bader. “Our fears of crime tend to promote the idea that strangers are generally dangerous. We have found a strong relationship between fear of crime and lack of trust of others and a lower willingness to help someone who is broken down on the side of the road. Our fears (of even very rare crimes) are making us less likely to help or accept help from other,” he says.
Yet, Kerr points out how fear can be a bonding experience, too. “When we go as a group into a haunted house, for example, we’re taking on these challenges together and in doing so creating stronger bonds, stronger memories and feelings of closeness. If you watch people coming out of a haunted house you’ll see lots of hugs and high fives,” she says, attributing this burst of emotion to raised oxytocin levels.
There’s no escaping fear because it’s as natural as breathing. But learning more about why we feel it and what our triggers are can only help us figure out how to better face our fears — and not let them get the best of us.