It’s the middle of October — and you know what that means. Millions of people are watching reruns of The Shining, tiptoeing through haunted houses and willfully participating in what basically amounts to light psychological distress. During spooky season, we crave fear.
On the face of it, deliberately choosing to be scared seems rather unusual. Aren’t our bodies supposed to recognize fear as a negative sensation so we know when to arm ourselves against threats?
To help explain such dissonance, I contacted a trauma specialist who offered some insight into what, exactly, happens in our brain when we decide to seek the sensation of fright.
“A big part of the draw is there’s an adrenaline rush,” explained Arianna Galligher, associate director of the Trauma Recovery Center at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Boo! Now, what just happened in your brain?
At the exact moment we feel fear — elicited from a jump scare in a horror film, for instance — our brain releases a cocktail of endorphins and adrenaline. That mixture of hormones, Galligher says, is similar to what the brain sends out during moments of excitement. Of course, we rejoice in excitement. That’s why fear often feels good.
“Fear and excitement are two sides of the same coin,” she said. “And for a lot of people, that sort of jolt is exciting even if fear is an ingredient.”
Short-lived terror can also offer a uniquely satisfying experience. When we’re purely excited or happy, Galligher says, our body primarily triggers dopamine, the classic pleasure hormone. But if the section of our brain responsible for judging threats, the amygdala, decides there’s danger, adrenaline and a stress hormone called cortisol get added to the mix.
Those two activate our survival instincts.
“That’s when you start to notice those physical sensations in your body,” Galligher said. “Your breath gets kind of short and shallow, your heart might start pumping faster, you start to feel a little restless. Your eyesight gets a little better, you’re keyed up, you’re on edge, you’re ready to react.”
We’re invigorated, and we love it. Well, some of us do at least.
But if you’re anything like me, that panic-filled bump of energy doesn’t immediately subside. Once a scary movie’s screen fades to black, it’s not uncommon to feel a lingering sense of stress — even though we know the film is over and wasn’t real.
“When we engage with something that is scary,” Galligher explained, “then the next natural progression for our brain is to sort of dwell in that space of ‘What if?’ — that existential threat.”
“We’re setting our brain up to go to that worst-case scenario and start to plan our survival strategies,” she added.
The solution is to get out of the “something horrible is happening” headspace, Galligher suggests. Hopping on YouTube and watching cute cat videos or listening to soothing classical music for an hour or two, maybe?
A fearful adrenaline rush isn’t for everyone
“It’s not necessarily that ‘I can’t be afraid,’ it’s that ‘I’m going to be really intentional about the flavor of fear that I’m going to engage with,'” Galligher said of those who prefer not to encounter a bloody ghoul on Halloween.
While anyone can find fear unpleasant, it can be particularly painful for people who have experienced trauma and have a more complicated relationship with the emotion. Because their minds have been primed to categorize some threats as extremely serious, events related to fear-producing stimuli could evoke too strong a response, like a panic attack.
Galligher explains that to feel fear in a safer way, some people may prefer to enter into a fear response while in a supportive environment with friends, family or other comforting elements. For example, someone who is sensitive to heights may not have fun skydiving, but they could enjoy virtual reality skydiving where they can remove their headset at any time.
The good and bad of feeling spooked
“We don’t want to live in a constant state of fear, but it is important to know that you can experience fear and survive that circumstance,” Galligher said.
As a social worker, Galligher works with survivors of violent crime. Some of her patients cope with long-term fear originating from past trauma, but during their recovery, she doesn’t discuss the emotion as one to stave off. Instead, she says it’s better to desensitize yourself to what’s making you fearful instead of avoiding it.
Hence, the sentiment “face your fears.”
“Avoidance is actually a symptom that prolongs symptoms of trauma and PTSD,” Galligher said. “So we actually work very hard to help people avoid avoidance.”
Desensitization can happen with pleasurable fright, too. Galligher cites the example of hardcore scary movie fans who watch gory or creepy flicks all the time. “Folks that are really interested in horror films tend not to be actually afraid,” she said. “They are drawn to more artistic elements of the film.”
“If they’re watching them every single day,” she continued, they “sort of get desensitized to that startle response.”
Too much normalization of fear, however, can lead to a slippery slope for adrenaline-lovers. Galligher says some could begin putting themselves into legitimately dangerous situations to keep receiving the adrenaline high the dreadful feeling provokes.
Eventually, their chosen activity may no longer be playing with a Ouija board or reading Edgar Allen Poe, but rather roaming an unsafe area off a deserted road. “There are folks out there that sort of up the ante in pursuit of that kind of dopamine dump that comes along,” she said.
On the flip side, if someone continuously finds themselves feeling fear without desensitization, Galligher emphasizes, there could be physically unhealthy consequences.
“If we’re exposing ourselves in a prolonged fashion to situations that produce high-intensity fear,” she said, “that can have a negative impact, over time, in terms of the release of stress hormones that are meant to be temporary.” Such excessive release, she says, could create undue inflammation in the body.
But in the end, Galligher notes that in moderation, “we want, as human beings, to have the capacity to experience a range of emotions — fear, being one of them.”