Last night, as I walked down what is usually a quiet and peaceful street in my community, I heard screams and shouts coming from one of the nearby houses. These weren't screams of delight or shouts of joy; these voices were filled with terror. And as I walked by the haunted house — one of the most popular tourist attractions in our town — I shook my head in disbelief that anyone in his right mind would pay good money to be scared.
Why do some people love a good scare while others (like me) will do anything to avoid it?
So-called "scare experts" have lots of theories about what attracts some people to scary things. For starters, fear is like a drug. When we're scared, our bodies activate the fight-or-flight response that helps us prepare to run away or put up a fight. Suddenly, our brains are flooded with endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline — and that feels really, really good. It gets even better when we survive the scary situation, and we know we will survive watching a scary movie or walking through a haunted house. This gives us an extraordinary feeling of confidence for facing our fears, even though we know deep down that there was nothing real to be afraid of.
Which brings up the point of experiencing fear while also feeling completely safe. Haunted houses and scary movies are an easy way to immerse ourselves in fear without actually being afraid. We know that the haunted house is not populated with zombies, so when one jumps out at us, we scream, but then laugh with equal exuberance. Our brains are floating in feel-good chemicals and exaggerated feelings of confidence. So is it any wonder that people get addicted to this feeling?
Another interesting phenomenon surrounding haunted houses and scary movies is that they tend to draw people together. When we're scared, all those chemicals swirling around in our brains act like glue to the cement our memories in place. So we remember the event and the people we were with more clearly. Got a big date coming up? A trip to the local haunted house might be a good way to ensure the evening is memorable. If — and this is a big if — your date is good with the whole fear-for-fun thing.
Hating to be scared
And that brings me to the other big question: If fear is so darned wonderful, how come some people (like me) hate it?
According to this LiveScience article, it's a question of maturity. As we get older, we can place these "safe fear" events in the appropriate context. We have been through them before and we know that nothing bad is going to come of it, so we're OK with a good scare. And that's exactly why little kids have such a hard time with fear. They don't know that the monster in the movie isn't really going to be waiting for them around the next dark corner. Therefore, the older and more mature you are, the less likely you are to be frightened by silly scares.
But as someone who hates to be scared — and I consider myself at least somewhat mature — I would have to respectfully disagree. As a kid, I remember loving the thrill of watching a scary movie or walking through a creepy haunted house. But now that I'm older, I get my thrills elsewhere. I run marathons and Ironman races. I have fixed a leak on the roof of our house in the pouring rain. I have two kids!
I don't need a flood of adrenaline from a haunted house when I have two daughters who constantly terrify me with talk about parachuting, college and (gulp) boys.
Now that's something to fear.