Frightfully fun: The science behind a good scare
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS) October 26, 2022
Science can explain why some people love the heart-pounding, chest-tightening, jumping-out-of-your-seat feeling of a good scare.
It’s an evolutionary core emotion that causes us to react when we sense danger, real or perceived. While we can’t always control what scares us, Halloween offers opportunities to make a choice to expose ourselves to those things.
That sense of control, choosing to do something scary, is what can make fear fun, said Margee Kerr, a sociologist and author of the book "Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear."
“As soon as you take that away,” she said, “it’s a different story.”
The Inquirer talked to experts about why some people like to be scared — and when a thrill can turn harmful, especially for young children:
Why do people like to be scared?
Three factors contribute to why some people like to get scared, said Kerr, a part-time professor at the University of Pittsburgh who researches fear.
• Psychological: Challenging a fear can lead to a sense of accomplishment that’s akin to running a marathon or scaling a mountain. “I did this really stressful thing and because I chose to do it; I can own this sense of accomplishment,” Kerr said.
• Physical: Our bodies react to fear by increasing adrenaline and epinephrine. In short spurts, this feeling can be a thrilling “natural high.” In the right context, this “fight or flight” feeling “can make us feel strong and almost euphoric,” Kerr said.
• Social: Emotions run high when doing something scary, and sharing the experience with friends can make you feel closer. “You feel solidarity and part of something bigger than yourself,” Kerr said.
What’s the difference between a good and bad scare?
Fear ceases to be fun when you feel out of control, Kerr said.
Consider the choice to go into a haunted house: You don’t know what’s happening, but there’s still a sense you can leave at any time, Kerr said.
“When that’s taken away, that’s when real fear sets in,” she said.
Why don’t some people like to be scared?
Kerr wants you to know it’s totally fine if you don’t like the thrill of fear. The physical feelings of the chest tightening and heart racing aren’t for everyone.
For some, certain types of scares may be triggering — for instance, bodily gore or violence. A negative past experience may influence what types of scary things are off-limits, she said.
Is there any benefit to getting scared?
Confronting things that scare you or make you uncomfortable can make you more adaptable and resilient, Kerr said. That doesn’t mean you should force yourself into a haunted house. Try a new food or physical activity, or watch a documentary that’s outside your normal interests.
“I tried doing a cartwheel the other day,” Kerr said. “It was terrifying.”
The idea is to challenge yourself to try something that’s easier to avoid.
“The more we start avoiding things, we continue to adapt downward until our life is very small,” she said.
Are the rules for facing fears the same for children?
Parents and guardians may feel social pressure to expose their children to new experiences. But when it comes to facing fears, consider what your child will gain, said Leah Orchinik, a pediatric psychologist with Nemours Children’s Health in Delaware.
“There’s a difference between being scared for the sake of fun and actually growing,” she said.
If your child’s fear of something is preventing a valuable experience — for instance, not playing outside because of a fear of spiders — talk to a pediatrician or specialist about how to work through it.
But monsters and zombies? Children under 6 years old are generally scared of pretend beasts because their brains and emotional capacity are not yet developed enough to understand they’re fake.
That’s why four former day-care employees in Mississippi were charged earlier this month with felony child abuse in connection with videos that showed an employee scaring children with a ghoulish mask like that used in the “Scream” horror movies.
“Halloween should be fun and silly,” Orchinik said. “There’s nothing inherently important about having a kid who’s scared of monsters and zombies face that fear.”