Science Of Fear And Why We Love Being Scared

First Posted: Oct 28, 2015 02:45 PM EDT

There are those of us who can't stand the thought of sitting through a scary movie, whether it's a cult classic like "The Exorcist" or a modern day hair raiser like "Drag Me to Hell."

But then some of us actively seek out screams--paying big bucks to be dragged through haunted houses, skyscraper-high roller coasters and ghost hunting just for the "fun" of it. This may seem strange to the more timid, but science can explain the psychology behind loving fear.

Fight Or Flight Response

When the human body is exposed to stressful situations (or situations that invoke fear), it raises anxiety levels. These biochemical responses go way back to when our ancient ancestors were threatened by predators. They kick in, telling us that something is amiss. Although we're no longer facing the threat of lions, this same chemically charged "fight-or-flight" response tunes in to other kinds of stress – like when we spot our boss hovering near our desk.

Medically speaking, stress induces a rush of adrenaline from the adrenal glands the split second after the brain receives a message that something threatening is afoot. Noreinephrine, also released by the adrenal glands, and cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone, also play a part. All of this occurs in the part of the brain known as the amygdala, a part of the limbic system that is also responsible for emotions and imprinting memories. 

Fortunately, most sought-out scary experiences aren't traumatic – in the true medical sense of the word – but that doesn't mean they don't evoke stress and stressful responses. This is why you can be frightened at a Halloween theme park even when you know the scare is coming.

What's addicting about all that – and ultimately the reason people look to be frightened in the first place – is the adrenaline rush along with the a semblance of control.

"Fear triggers this adrenaline rush that some people really enjoy," said Professor David Beversdorf of the University of Missouri, who studies the effects of stress on cognition. "That fear and stress then activate the amygdala."

But why do so many of us enjoy this rush that comes with meditated fear?

Mediated Fright Vs. Real Fright

You know that feeling of relief you get at the end of a roller coaster ride? The climb up was scary and the dips were frightening and fun but the end was also relaxing and exhilarating--which might have made us want to get in line all over again. These emotions are exactly why some people seek out scary experiences, scientists say. They're looking for that positive relief that comes at the end of a negative experience. 

"Vigilance and arousal is capitalized on in mass media. It draws our attention. It gets us aroused. It's dangerous but it's not really dangerous. It feels exciting," said Jeff Greenberg, a social psychology professor at the University of Arizona. "If you read a book or go to a movie, you want to be ‘infected.' An easy way to get that is to be scared."

Greenberg's most notable for coining the concept of Terror Management Theory, which proposes that humans have a deep-seated desire to live while realizing that death is inevitable; this produces a desire to hold onto cultural perspectives that provide life with both meaning and value.

While the most obvious cultural values stem from belief in religion or an afterlife, others come from the value of posterity, national identity and human superiority that make us feel like we're part of something bigger that will last even after death. This may, in part, be why some of us show such an insatiable appetite for unrealistic horror or action movies –particularly those that reinforce the idea that good triumphs over evil.

"We like having control over things that scare us," he said. "Then we have some sense that we can handle these things."

As we go about our daily lives, it's unlikely we'll spot a ghost or run from a serial killer but there are other very serious things to fear: deadly health issues that increase the risk of early mortality, crippling financial hardships and suffocating relationships. We may not be able to conquer most or any of these things but a kind of surrogate satisfaction can be found when placing ourselves in scary situations that we can actually overcome. 

"The world is a scary place and people have to function in the world knowing about all of these things," Greensburg said. "So it's almost like we have a vaccination with a little bit of fear just to function."

Greensburg's thoughts touch on Noel Carroll's philosophical argument, which postulates that because so much of what we look for in fear runs outside of our normal experiences, we can approach these topics with a sense of curiosity and wonder instead of dread and doom.

Enjoyment of Mediated Fright and Violence

Gender and certain personality characteristics ultimately influence the enjoyment of fear-inducing entertainment (books, television shows, movies, etc). That's what researchers Cynthia A. Hoffner of the Department of Communication at Georgia State University and Kenneth J. Levine at the School of Communication Studies at the University of Tennessee found after completing a comprehensive meta-analysis on the matter. Their 35 studies were designed to assess characteristics of those who watched scary movies under observation.

The study showed that male-viewers, and individuals lower in empathy and higher in sensation seeking and aggressiveness were more likely to enjoy fearful or violent scenes in entertainment. Additional research regarding males in particular suggests that gender socialization may play a part in the attraction to fear. One study conducted by the American Psychological Association also found that men who enjoyed horror movies liked them more when watching them with a female who was scared. To the contrary, women in the study enjoyed horror movies more when they watched it with a male who wasn't scared.

Horror Entertainment for Everyone

Halloween is just around the corner, and even if you're not into blood-dripping vampires or soul-sucking ghouls, chances are you will snuggle up to catch a seasonal-themed show or movie. For the more adventurous who want to test their reaction to scenes designed to induce fear, Netflix is streaming 18 popular movies right now, including the following, courtesy of Popsugar: "Scream," "Hellraiser," "Rosemary's Baby," "Let the Right One In," "Ju-on: The Grudge," "Children of the Corn," "The Quiet Ones," "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," "The Babadook," "The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death," "Sorority Row," "Creep," "Saw V, Zombeavers," "Open Windows," "Sleepy Hollow," "The Lazarus Effect," "The Nightmare," and the "Curse of Chucky."

For the less adventurous, there's always light-hearted horror-themed comedies such as "The Final Girls" and "Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse." For kids (or the kid in you), there's always The Disney Channel and "The Peanuts" Halloween classic, "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown."

But for those of us who hate even mild frights, we'll probably just skip ahead to Christmas. 

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