Halloween is right around the corner, a time where we delight in frightening one another. But what is it about humans that makes us love getting scared?
It’s that time of year again: jack-o-lanterns, witches, Frankenstein’s monster, and mummies adorn storefronts and neighborhoods as far as the eye can see. Halloween is all about giving yourself and others a good scare — but isn’t that counter-intuitive? Why would we actively seek out the sensation of being afraid, even going so far as to pay for the privilege of going to a haunted house? The answer is surprising, and perhaps more biologically based than you might initially think.
Yes, there’s a chemical reaction to fear that lives deep within our brains… and it’s not all bad. There are two possible chemically based reasons for why we seek out scary experiences like horror movies and haunted houses. First, dopamine: the primary chemical in our brains that results in feelings of euphoria and pleasure. When we subconsciously understand that we’re not in actual physical danger, we can get a rush that comes with the feeling of overcoming an (artificial) challenge. That rush can bring with it a flood of dopamine, since sometimes all it takes in our overly-busy lives is being snapped into the present moment to have some fun.
Let’s not also forget endorphins, the same chemicals that flood your body during and after a difficult bout of exercise. The body releases these feel-good chemicals to help compensate for an experience that may be stressful, painful, or difficult. The evolutionary reasoning behind this may have something to do with allowing us to think and act clearly in the face of stressors or even attackers.
Of course, not everyone is going to find a haunted house fun. We all know those people (and maybe you are one) who refuse to engage in any of the usual spooky Halloween rituals. If that’s you, the answer may lie buried inside your amygdala — the part of your brain that regulates fear and risk management. We evolved as highly intelligent beings capable of processing enormous amounts of information which then let us make a determination about our safety and act accordingly (our “fight or flight” response). Yet, in some individuals, the amygdala becomes overactive and is essentially too sensitive to fear.
Often, people with an especially “active” amygdala find the experience of fear — even absent any real danger — too intense to ever enjoy. These people can often also struggle with anxiety issues, though not always. An overactive pre-frontal cortex is trying its best to protect and guide us away from harm, but in its zeal to guard, it can actually hurt us by being too engaged and conscious of things that are in fact harmless.
Finally, our personalities have an impact on our vicarious attraction to fear or lack thereof. Some people are simply wired to enjoy thrilling or semi-dangerous activities, while others are more risk-averse. And that’s totally okay! You just might want to avoid walking the streets on the evening of October 31st each year…