It is around this time of year that scaring becomes a big deal. Houses are strung with Halloween decorations from spiders to ghosts and ghouls, and then often splashed with ‘blood’ as well. Families and friends play tricks on each other or gather together in dark rooms to watch scary movies or tell terrifying tales. Haunted houses make a killing too – if you’ll excuse the pun! Of course, it’s not just in October that we liked to be scared either. In fact, all year round, people partake in extreme sports or adrenaline pumping activities and the scare industry is big business. We make an event of being scared, eagerly anticipating it and taking a thrill from it afterwards. In short: we love it!
What’s odd about this is that should any of these activities have a genuine, real-life affect, we’d be terrified – and not in a good way, as intended. Most people would not want to be put into a genuinely life threatening situation and fear is our brain’s way of protecting us from that. It warns us of a threat and helps us to react accordingly, but when it comes to thrill seeking, a lot of people thrive on a good scare. So we know that some people enjoy it. The question is, though, can a scare actually be good for you?
The answer? Absolutely it can, and this is why:
The first and perhaps most obvious benefit of being scared is the natural high that comes with it. When faced with a potentially threatening situation, our bodies go into what is known as the fight or flight response. At its base, this is a release of adrenaline that allows us to either flee from the situation or act quickly and efficiently to fight it. At a more complex level, it’s a physiological change. Our heart rate increases, our breath quickens, we begin to sweat, our muscle tense, and our concentration focuses narrowly on the perceived threat. Our brains are also flooded with chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins – yes, the same ones that give you a buzz after exercising.
It’s not fight or flight that is, in itself, enjoyable. In a genuinely threatening situation, we wouldn’t get a buzz from this response, but rather would be able to react in a way that better suited the circumstances. Dr. Margee Kerr, a scare specialist at Robert Morris University says the response becomes enjoyable when we know that we are away from harm. Once we accept that we are safe, we are free to enjoy the chemical rush and enjoy that sense of relief – or even of achievement – that we feel once we get through a haunted house or scary movie.