The science of fear explains why being frightened can be fun, at least for some people.
If scary stuff makes you laugh, both your body and mind are the cause.
“When we’re afraid our bodies release different chemicals that can contribute to feeling good under the right circumstances,” Margee Kerr, Ph.D., sociologist, and author of “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear,”told Healthline.
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Kerr says the positive feelings are caused by different neurotransmitters and hormones released when the body feels fear.
These are all triggered by the body’s sympathetic nervous system.
“Our body is a refined, well-oiled machine getting ready to fight or flee. So if we’re in a situation where we know we’re safe like a haunted house, scary movie, or roller coaster, think of it as hijacking the flight response and enjoying it,” said Kerr. “This is similar to a high arousal state, not sexual, but like when we’re happy, laughing, excited, or surprised. Those chemical signatures look similar to when we’re scared; it’s just a different context.”
Melissa Robinson, 42, from Illinois, can attest.
She’s been into all things scary since she can remember.
“To have that scary feeling gives me a big thrill,” Robinson told Healthline. “When I was about 8, my dad introduced me to a black and white film about a swamp monster and I remember thinking how cool it was. My liking for everything dark grew from there, and I began watching a lot of Vincent Price movies.”
While Robinson enjoys horror movies and haunted houses, she says her favorite way to become scared is to read Stephen King books at night.
“Then when I hear noises it scares me more. The feeling of being scared makes me happy,” she said.
Harris Shure, an 18-year-old from Chicago, agrees with Robinson.
When he was around 7 years old, his younger brother checked out a movie from the library that he thought was about dogs. It was actually about being a werewolf.
“My brother had nightmares for weeks, but I loved it,” said Shure.
So began his interest in horror books, movies, and haunted houses.
“It’s not being in the dark that freaks me out. It’s what’s in the dark that scares me. I love the feeling of not knowing,” Shure told Healthline. “It’s entertainment to me and takes my mind off of things. I also like the creativity of it all.”
So much so that Shure worked in a haunted house for a while.
“I was a zombie, and I liked the feeling of accomplishment I got when I made people scream and cry because it meant I did my job,” he said.
It’s possible that people like Robinson and Shure, who get a thrill from scary things, may have a variance in their sympathetic nervous system.
“Research shows that there’s a difference between people in how active or effective their sympathetic nervous response is. Those differences are related to being more thrill- or sensation-seeking or being more stress-sensitive,” Kerr said. “The explanation is often reduced incorrectly to people who have more dopamine get a bigger thrill, but the way the neurotransmitters function in the brain is that there’s the amount of dopamine that’s released and then the amount that’s reabsorbed. People can have differences in both those components.”
The frontal lobe of the brain is a factor too, says Katherine Brownlowe, M.D., psychiatrist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
“The frontal lobe is the thinking part of the brain. It’s the part of your brain that can modulate the more primitive response and tell you you’re OK right now,” Brownlowe told Healthline. “So if you’re in a situation like a haunted house and something jumps out at you or you hear a scary noise, your body goes into a fight or flight mode, but your frontal lobe still knows you’re safe and will calm you down, allowing the situation to be more pleasurable.”
“It’s like your brain is at the edge of danger, but it knows it’s not actually at risk,” she explained.
Consider this. You’re in dark woods and something jumps out at you, your brain has no idea if it’s your friend playing a trick on you or if a bear is about to attack you.
“Because humans like to survive, there’s no time for your frontal lobe to think ‘Wait, let me consider this and get more evidence,’” Brownlowe said. “In a situation where you don’t know if you’re safe or not, you’d probably run and scream.”
Everyone is born with different personalities and temperaments that contribute to their view of fear, says Brownlowe.
“There is a temperamental dimension that we call sensation-seeking, whether that is someone who wants to be challenged, or enjoys thrills and finds these types of experiences exciting. On the other end of the spectrum are people who are averse to those experiences and may be more sensitive, more shy, and more fearful,” said Brownlowe.
While we may start out life with a certain temperament, life experiences can change our temperament.
“If you are a person who has experienced a trauma, that’s going to change how you think,” Brownlowe said. “Maybe you started out temperamentally not nervous but because of life experiences have become more anxious, nervous, and sensitized, so therefore thrill seeking or fearful types of experiences aren’t going to be as enjoyable for you.”
What are personality traits of fear lovers? Kerr says research points to the following:
- openness to experience
“When people think thrill seeker, they often think of someone who is impulsive, but people can be open to thrill seeking and adventurous without being impulsive,” Kerr said.
She also notes that those who are empathetic and sensitive to others’ emotions may enjoy thrills.
“Emotions are contagious, and the way we understand other people’s emotions is by recreating them ourselves. Someone who is very empathetic may get enjoyment experiencing the emotion of fear,” Kerr said.
Fear may also be a way to connect with others.
“When we do scary things with other people like go to a haunted house or skydive, there is real bonding and a feeling of connectedness,” said Kerr. “There are studies that show that we get closer to each other when we’re scared with people we have an existing positive association with, and on the other hand, how we increase negative feelings toward those we don’t like when we’re in stressful situations together.”
So, should fear seekers be feared? Kerr says “No.”
“People think that if you’re really into [scary things] then that’s in line with your pathology, and I’m happy to report that it’s not. The data that my colleagues have collected show that so many people enjoy horror and it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with them,” she said.
If someone is showing symptoms of mental health issues, then it could be concerning, adds Kerr.
“But just liking the content is not a sign that something is wrong,” she said. “It’s like some people like country music and some like rock. It’s just a matter of taste.”