Dr. Margee Kerr is a “scare specialist.” In addition to college teaching, she is the staff sociologist at ScareHouse, a “haunted house” in Pittsburgh, which apparently consults her scientific expertise in designing effects that scare people. The Atlantic interviews her on the question of why some people like to get scared.
Why do some people like the feeling of being scared, while others don’t?
Not everyone enjoys being afraid, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that no one wants to experience a truly life-threatening situation. But there are those of us (well, a lot of us) who really enjoy the experience. First, the natural high from the fight or flight response can feel great. There is strong evidence that this isn’t just about personal choice, but our brain chemistry. New research from David Zald shows that people differ in their chemical response to thrilling situations. One of the main hormones released during scary and thrilling activities is dopamine, and it turns out some individuals may get more of a kick from this dopamine response than others do. Basically, some people’s brains lack what Zald describes as “brakes” on the dopamine release and re-uptake in the brain. This means some people are going to really enjoy thrilling, scary, and risky situations while others, not so much.
To really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we’re in a safe environment.
Lots of people also enjoy scary situations because it leaves them with a sense of confidence after it’s over. Think about the last time you made it through a scary movie, or through a haunted house. You might have thought, “yes! I did it! I made it all the way through!” So it can be a real self-esteem boost. But again, self-scaring isn’t for everyone, and there are lots of psychological and personal reasons someone may not enjoy scary situations. I’ve talked to more than a handful of people who will never set foot in a haunted house because they went to a haunt at a young age and were traumatized. I always recommend parents thoroughly check out the content and rating of a haunted attraction before bringing a child. The chemicals that are released during fight-or-flight can work like glue to build strong memories (“flashbulb memories”) of scary experiences, and if you’re too young to know the monsters are fake, it can be quite traumatic and something you’ll never forget, in a bad way.
What happens in our brains when we’re scared? Is it different when we’re scared “in a fun way” versus being actually afraid?
To really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we’re in a safe environment. It’s all about triggering the amazing fight-or-flight response to experience the flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, but in a completely safe space. Haunted houses are great at this—they deliver a startle scare by triggering one of our senses with different sounds, air blasts, and even smells. These senses are directly tied to our fear response and activate the physical reaction, but our brain has time to process the fact that these are not “real” threats. Our brain is lightning-fast at processing threat. I’ve seen the process thousands of times from behind the walls in ScareHouse—someone screams and jumps and then immediately starts laughing and smiling. It’s amazing to observe. I’m really interested to see where our boundaries are in terms of when and how we really know or feel we’re safe.