The Science of Fear

Image Courtesy of Rahu | Pixabay

Hannah Maerowitz
Science & Tech Editor

Horror movies, scary costumes, and haunted houses are all characteristic of Halloween and indicative of why some are so fond of the holiday a lot of people love being scared.

Fear is generally viewed as an unpleasant emotion, which can make a pension for fear seem counterintuitive. However, it’s not that simple.

For some thrill seekers, mood can improve significantly after going to a haunted house. This may be due to the fact that people tend to process information differently than they did before they went through the haunted house especially negative information. This may result in a paradoxical relaxing effect.

The amygdala is largely responsible for how we experience fear. Associated with emotions and memory, the amygdala sends signals to the body that tell it to increase respiration, blood pressure, and heart rate when it receives signals (like pain or a loud sound) that there may be a threat.

At this point, fear becomes physiological as the hippocampus triggers a fight or flight response, which results in a surge of adrenaline as hormones are released by the adrenal glands.

Dopamine is one of the hormones released during this process. Although it’s scientifically uncertain why some people enjoy the experience of fear more than others, it’s theorized that a thrill seeker’s brain may release more dopamine during this process. Dopamine release is associated with pleasure and movement, which makes increased release a potential explanation of why some have a fondness for fear.

Haunted houses hijack this fear response to trick us into feeling like we’re sincerely threatened, even though haunted houses are all controlled environments. One strategy many haunted houses use to accomplish this is creating a sense of disorientation. They may have blackout rooms, which deprive people of knowing what’s coming next.

Strobes, fog, and actors hyperventilating or creating loud sounds can add to this sense of disorientation. All of these techniques combined can magnify disorientation to a dramatic extent.

Disorientation is scary for the same reason that suspense is exciting you don’t know what could happen next, so it feels as though everything could potentially be a threat. This stands in stark contrast to the more traditional “boo scare,” where someone surprises you with a loud noise when you’re not expecting it.

Although loud noises are a fear we’re born with because of its evolutionary functionality, these sudden and quick scares don’t create as much fear because we can quickly discern that there is no actual threat.

By harnessing knowledge about fear, haunted houses can create the illusion that they are unsafe, despite being completely safe. This parallels a larger phenomenon where relatively safe experiences, such as being vulnerable with someone or holding a particularly large spider, are viewed as unsafe.

Even if you don’t identify as an adrenaline junkie, fear can be a growing experience. Sharing fear with someone can bring you closer together and facing your own fears can help you move past them, with research supporting the idea that regular exposure to a feared stimulus results in habituation and decreased fear.

Far from being exclusively negative, fear can be exciting, novel, part of a growing experience, or even have a pleasant aftermath. Halloween may bring something we all fear fear itself to the forefront and allow us to experience it in new and more enjoyable ways.