The Science Behind the Spook

Illustrated by Anasthasia Shilov

What frightens you? Ghosts, ghouls, and demons? Spiders, bugs, and snakes? Small, dark spaces, wild roller coasters? Zombies, vampires, werewolves? Axe-wielding animals, contorted human bodies, menacing clowns? Around this time of year, people face all of these terrors—on purpose! We watch horror movies, explore haunted houses, and share scary stories to celebrate the spooky spirit of Halloween. But why do we enjoy indulging in fear—traditionally a negative emotion—to such an extent?

Fear has existed in humans for eons as a fundamentally wired reaction that evolved to warn us about potential threats and protect us from danger. Fear has a range of manifestations, from the smallest flinch to existential anxiety, and it encompasses what is colloquially known as the “fight or flight” response. Biologically, fear is advantageous because it initiates a flood of hormones, including epinephrine, dopamine, and endorphins, which causes our hearts to speed up and our breathing to quicken. The combination of these factors allows our bodies to be capable of more extreme physical feats. In times of imminent peril, being even slightly faster or stronger can mean the difference between survival and death.

Frank Farley, former president of the American Psychological Association, explains that the specific experiences that incite fear in each individual are the result of a “unique recipe that blends nature and nurture.” While people can be conditioned to fear almost anything, there are specific fears that exist almost universally across borders and cultures. According to Dr. Margee Kerr, the staff sociologist at the popular Pittsburgh ScareHouse, people are innately afraid of phenomena that “violate the laws of nature.” Strong similarities can be seen among popular mythological monsters in a number of cultures: the Japanese Yōkai, the South American Chupacabra, the Egyptian Griffin, the Greek Cerberus, and the Scottish Loch Ness Monster. At the end of the day, the key ingredient to fear is a jarring dissonance, whether cognitive or aesthetic—that is, anything that provokes a deep discomfort or that we can’t understand.

So what enjoyment do people get from eliciting this discomfort within themselves? Interestingly, self-scaring has long been a part of human history and has been popularized as something social and profitable over the last few centuries. One of the earliest examples began with Russian “ice slides” in the 17th century, which eventually became more and more sophisticated. They developed into the “Dark Rides,” roller coasters spanning the Russian mountains, complete with frightening scenery and terrifying drops.

One major reason people may enjoy scaring themselves is the rush associated with fear without any real danger. Many of the hormones involved in the fear response, especially epinephrine (better known as adrenaline), can create a strong high, facilitating a “thrill.” Dopamine is the same hormone involved in experiences of extreme pleasure or happiness. However, Dr. Kerr emphasizes that in order for people to truly enjoy a fearful experience, they must be certain that they are in a safe environment. This way, our bodies still undergo the biological reaction without the cognition of fear. This is the reason people often laugh immediately after screaming in haunted houses. Additionally, terrifying situations make for great bonding experiences, as the strong emotional response lends itself to stronger relationships and memories. Studies have also shown that extreme fear leads to “flashbulb memories” in our brains. These flashbulb memories, also known as “snapshot memories,” are exceptionally vivid and accurate, fixating for long periods of time.

Unfortunately, these same powerful memories can be tied to persistent traumas, and are part of the reason some people may not enjoy partaking in fear-inducing activities as much as others. Everyone has a unique history and psychological profile, and people that experienced extreme fear as children may have a particularly difficult time with horror movies and haunted houses, as they may trigger intense negative memories.

Furthermore, scientists have found that genetics may also play a role in how susceptible someone is to enjoying artificially-induced fear. Dr. David Zald of Vanderbilt University conducts research on dopamine. He and his team found that some brains have fewer autoreceptors for the hormone, allowing them to get larger amounts of dopamine from scary situations. “Think of dopamine like gasoline,” Dr. Zald analogized. “You combine that with a brain equipped with a lesser ability to put on the brakes than normal, and you get people who push limits.” On the other hand, people with more of these autoreceptors would get less of a dopamine rush from a good scare and enjoy it less as a result.

In summary, there are a number of different factors that determine when and how we experience fear, and no individual has the same reaction to any spooky situation. Take visiting a haunted house, for example: some of your friends might brave it with laughs, while others yawn, and others still refuse to even step inside. No matter what, there’s a way for all of us to have a happy Halloween!

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