The science behind being scared

Are There Health Benefits for Being Scared?
Are There Health Benefits for Being Scared?


I took the kids shopping for Halloween decorations yesterday, and the selection was both incredible and really frightening: witches, the bloodied undead, skeletons and mutilated body parts, all with a soundtrack to go with. The charge at checkout was also fairly frightening. This got me thinking. Why do we want to be scared? What is the attraction to terror? Isn't the real world scary enough? We intentionally visit haunted houses, pay for movies that leave us looking over our shoulders for months, and have turned Halloween into a creepy extravaganza. Why do some of us run toward, as opposed to away from, fear?

There is a psychological basis to our fright-seeking behavior:

  • People want to see the dark-side. We are intrigued by the idea of there being something other, something which defies the natural rules of our world.

  • Some derive gratification from seeing just how far they can push their levels of anxiety. There is a sense of accomplishment derived from pushing our psyche to the limit.

  • The motivation comes from the end-prize – the bragging rights we made it through. According to some scientists, it is not we enjoy the fear, it is we want to prove to ourselves and others we can survive it. Some consider it a rite of passage.

  • For others, anything different is good. The bizarre and the grotesque is different than the mundane, and therefore it is attractive just by being foreign.

  • The physical response to fear is akin to sex in that there is little else which can so dramatically alter our sensations. The pounding heart, the sweaty palms, and the tensed muscles may be uncomfortable or even awful for some, but for others, there is a subsequent high, which keeps them always searching for the next thrill.

Everyone is unique in his or her attraction to and ability to tolerate fear. In this month of ghouls and goblins, I urge you to keep a considerate eye on your children. For some kids, the tricks of Halloween are all fun and games. For others, they can be traumatizing. Gauge your Halloween purchases and experiences by the reactions of your children. There are plenty of adorable little ghosts and cats to adorn your home if your kids are truly scared, and you can avoid the haunted houses and stick with the pumpkin picking. I'm starting to regret letting my kids talk me into the motion activated leaping corpse. What was I thinking?

Ideas for tasty Halloween treats:

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Originally published