Even though no one actually wants be in a life threatening scenario, many still crave scare-inducing moments, such as watching horror movies or electing to enter a haunted house attraction.
In an article published in The Atlantic titled “Why Do Some Brains Enjoy Fear,” Allegra Ringo interviews a “scare specialist, Dr. Margee Kerr, professor at two universities and sociologist on staff for “ScareHouse,” a haunted house attraction in Pittsburgh.
According to Dr. Kerr, many people seek out fear-inducing activities because of the feeling of euphoria from the adrenaline release associated with the “fight or flight” response. Furthermore, a person’s individual brain chemistry can also play a role in the response to a scary scenario. Dr. Kerr mentioned that new research has demonstrated that the hormone dopamine released from experiencing scary things can be more intense for some people than for others.
People who tend to enjoy scary things more than others often have more dopamine released and less dopamine reuptake than others who have a more controlled dopamine pathway. Furthermore, people often feel a sense of accomplishment or increase in self-esteem at the end of being exposed to something terrifying, such as a feeling of “I did it!” or “I survived!”.
In addition to the neurological effects of experiencing fear, your body also experiences several physiological effects in response to fear-inducing stimuli. For example, as you’re watching that horror movie, your brain interprets the events of the film as real, and posing a potential threat to your wellbeing.
Therefore, the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for the “fight” response, increases production of adrenaline and cortisol. As a result, your heart rate increases so that more blood is pumped throughout your body, preparing you for any potential threats. In addition, one study found that for their sample of a group of young adults, watching a horror movie resulted an increased heart rate by 14 beats per minute. The study also found a significant increase in blood pressure, white blood cell count, and concentration of hematocrit, which is the percentage of red blood cells in the total blood volume.
Other physical responses to fear include sweating and muscle contraction. When your brain has detected a threat, it gives a kind of “alarm reaction.” Researchers from the University of Amsterdam determined that in horror movies with especially effective soundtracks, the music, when coupled with a sudden or unexpected stimulus, leads to contraction of the muscles of the legs and arms.
Some studies have investigated the potential positive health effects of watching horror movies. A surge of adrenaline can actually improve alertness, if coupled with later realization that the threat is fake. Moreover, feelings of fear can also distract you from your daily worries and pressures. The emotional arousal caused by scary stimuli can also help alleviate depression because of the increase of adrenaline. Dr. Mayer, a practicing psychologist and expert on the effects of violence on the human psyche explains, “It’s nearly impossible to be thinking of our pressure and worries when we’re experiencing fear or feeling scared. It works like an eraser for the mind.”
Furthermore, when we watch horror movies or go to haunted houses, we experience fear with friends in a group. Therefore, we are engaging in prosocial behavior, which reinforces the strength of relationships with members of the group. This strengthening of bonds can be attributed to the hormone oxytocin, which is released by the body when you are scared. The release of oxytocin is associated with the brain’s survival instinct, which involves pairing with another person or group of people to increase survival chances.
Though an occasional good scare can rattle your bones and give a jolt of excitement, living under prolonged states of fear or threats can negatively impact health. Fear can lower the ability of the immune system to fight against pathogens. It can cause an increased rate of aging, gastrointestinal issues such as ulcers and can even lead to early death. In addition, fear can impair how the brain works by messing up pathways which play a role in the regulation of emotions, making decisions and interpreting body language.
The memory center of the brain, the hippocampus, also risks being damaged because fear can interfere with the proper formation of long term memory. In addition to physical health, fear can impact mental health as well by resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue and depression.