Why Do Some Brains Enjoy Fear?

The science behind the appeal of haunted houses, freak shows, and physical thrills.
P.T. Barnum's "Fiji Mermaid" was featured in 19th-century sideshows, billed as a mummified half-mammal-half-fish. It was actually the torso and head of a juvenile monkey sewn to the body of a fish. (Wikimedia)

This time of year, thrillseekers can enjoy horror movies, haunted houses, and prices so low, it’s scary. But if fear is a natural survival response to a threat, or danger, why would we seek out that feeling?

Dr. Margee Kerr is the staff sociologist at ScareHouse, a haunted house in Pittsburgh that takes all year to plan. She also teaches at Robert Morris University and Chatham University, and is the only person I’ve ever heard referred to as a “scare specialist.” Dr. Kerr is an expert in the field of fear. I spoke with her about what fear is, and why some of us enjoy it so much.

Why do some people like the feeling of being scared, while others don’t?

Not everyone enjoys being afraid, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that no one wants to experience a truly life-threatening situation. But there are those of us (well, a lot of us) who really enjoy the experience. First, the natural high from the fight or flight response can feel great. There is strong evidence that this isn’t just about personal choice, but our brain chemistry. New research from David Zald shows that people differ in their chemical response to thrilling situations. One of the main hormones released during scary and thrilling activities is dopamine, and it turns out some individuals may get more of a kick from this dopamine response than others do. Basically, some people’s brains lack what Zald describes as “brakes” on the dopamine release and re-uptake in the brain. This means some people are going to really enjoy thrilling, scary, and risky situations while others, not so much.

Lots of people also enjoy scary situations because it leaves them with a sense of confidence after it’s over. Think about the last time you made it through a scary movie, or through a haunted house. You might have thought, “yes! I did it! I made it all the way through!” So it can be a real self-esteem boost. But again, self-scaring isn’t for everyone, and there are lots of psychological and personal reasons someone may not enjoy scary situations. I’ve talked to more than a handful of people who will never set foot in a haunted house because they went to a haunt at a young age and were traumatized. I always recommend parents thoroughly check out the content and rating of a haunted attraction before bringing a child. The chemicals that are released during fight-or-flight can work like glue to build strong memories (“flashbulb memories”) of scary experiences, and if you’re too young to know the monsters are fake, it can be quite traumatic and something you’ll never forget, in a bad way.

What happens in our brains when we’re scared? Is it different when we’re scared “in a fun way” versus being actually afraid?

To really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we’re in a safe environment. It’s all about triggering the amazing fight-or-flight response to experience the flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, but in a completely safe space. Haunted houses are great at this—they deliver a startle scare by triggering one of our senses with different sounds, air blasts, and even smells. These senses are directly tied to our fear response and activate the physical reaction, but our brain has time to process the fact that these are not “real” threats. Our brain is lightning-fast at processing threat. I’ve seen the process thousands of times from behind the walls in ScareHouse—someone screams and jumps and then immediately starts laughing and smiling. It’s amazing to observe. I’m really interested to see where our boundaries are in terms of when and how we really know or feel we’re safe.

What qualities do “scary things” share across cultures, or does it vary widely?

One of the most interesting things about studying fear is looking at the social constructions of fear, and learned fears versus those fears that appear to be more innate, or even genetic. When we look across time and across the world, we find that people truly can become afraid of anything. Through fear conditioning (connecting a neutral stimulus with a negative consequence) we can link pretty much anything to a fear response. Baby Albert, of course, is the exemplar case of this. The poor child was made deathly afraid of white rabbits in the 1920’s, before researchers were required to be ethical. So we know that we can learn to fear, and this means our socialization and the society in which we are raised is going to have a lot to do with what we find scary.

Each culture has its own superhero monsters—the Chupacabra (South America), the Loch Ness Monster, the Yōkai (supernatural monsters from Japanese folklore), Alps (German nightmare creatures)—but they all have a number of characteristics in common. Monsters are defying the general laws of nature in some way. They have either returned from the afterlife (ghosts, demons, spirits) or they are some kind of non-human or semi-human creature. This speaks to the fact that things that violate the laws of nature are terrifying. And really anything that doesn’t make sense or causes us some sort of dissonance, whether it is cognitive or aesthetic, is going to be scary (axe-wielding animals, masked faces, contorted bodies).

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Allegra Ringo is a writer and comedian based in Los Angeles. Her work also appears on Vice and The Hairpin, and she is a regular contributor to The Higgs-Weldon.

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