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Eek! Why we love to scare ourselves silly

Experts say there's a physiological explanation to why we crave that adrenaline surge a roller coaster can give.
Experts say there's a physiological explanation to why we crave that adrenaline surge a roller coaster can give.Keith Srakocic/AP

Writes Bill Briggs: You jump, yelp and quake. You hug tighter and breathe harder. Then, you giggle it all away. The hormonal storm that cascades through your body before, during and after a frightfully fun moment is – as haunted house artist Timothy Haskell likes to say – “a beautiful pathos.” “It’s a complete journey from anticipation to anxiety to experiencing the fear and having the adrenaline rush to coming down afterward,” says Haskell, an Off-Broadway director whose latest ghostly creation, “Nightmare: Superstitions,” runs Sept. 24-Nov. 6 in Manhattan. “Fear and hilarity are very close to each other. It’s the same (neuro)transmitter that’s being engaged. A lot of times, you’ll get startled and find the very next reaction is to laugh.” Crazy for coasters: For some, track goes on forever Which explains why so many of us purposely love to be scared: It’s an internal roller coaster ride that delivers us safely back to reality. Whether bungee-cord jumping or watching horror flicks, we’re drawn to the chemical surge of controlled danger. Adding to the blood-curdling bliss: your body can’t discern between the intentional thrill you ignite by, say, parachuting for sport and the anxiety that grips you if you stumble into true peril. “People think this is all in your head. No, it’s all in your kidney rind,” says Dr. Christoph Leonhard, a psychologist and professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. In an alarming situation, your adrenal glands (which sit atop your kidneys) dump the hormone epinephrine into your blood steam. That gush triggers a series of bodily reactions – the “fight or flight response” – including a burst in heart rate and breathing. “The very exciting experiences and the anxious experiences are difficult to differentiate just on a physiological level,” Leonhard says. “So if you’re going bungee-cord jumping or if you are having a panic attack driving over a big bridge, biologically speaking, it’s almost identical.” After the terror lifts, your body unleashes a compensatory hormonal wave – noradrenaline – to restore heart and breathing rates. What you feel then is “that peaceful, relaxed, deeply pleasurable state,” Leonhard says. “People get addicted to that as much as they get addicted to the excitement.” Our joy-jolt is further revved by watching others freak out. Due to biological differences, some of us simply startle easier – “just like,” Leonhard says, “it takes more beer to get some people drunk.” Typically, those of us who seek the big scare like to do it in packs. Psychologically, Leonhard says, we enjoy trying on roles that come with actual creepy situations: We become the caretaker or we allow someone to protect us. We bond. People often attend Haskell’s “Nightmare” events in groups and because, he says, they “share communally.” (The backdrop for his 2010 haunted house: a 35-minute stroll through a former New York City insane asylum). “They like being the safety buffer as well as being the person who needs a safety buffer.” Haskell says. “People like to bring their girlfriend and boyfriend – whoever they have to hold onto.” Roller coasters, scary movies, bungee jumping -- what's your favorite way to freak yourself out? Tell us about your favorite adrenaline source in the comments. Find The Body Odd on Twitter and on Facebook.