Halloween goosebumps, shivers and ‘skin orgasms’, and why we love to feel that frisson
- A frisson can be triggered by a scare, an emotive piece of music or a high-pitched note
- It is a remnant from a time when our fur would stand on end to make us look bigger
The couple on screen clutches and embraces, but the music that drifts over them is eerie, uneasy. Alone in a dark cinema, you feel a chill race up your spine.
Walking home after a late night, you hear footsteps behind you. And just as you notice the sound, the footsteps quicken. The hair on your forearms stands on end.
It’s goosebump season, that Halloween period that promises something sweet, laced with something scary. Some people wait all year for those thrills; others don’t have to.
The phenomenon of “chills”, provoked not by cold but by emotion or aesthetics (or a combination of both) is a sought-after commodity, both by people who seek out triggers for the feeling, known as frisson, and by scientists who study what’s going on in our brains when we get that tingle.
Some people, it turns out, feel a frisson, which has also been called a “skin orgasm,” more easily than others. You might sit through the most chilling film and never feel a thing – or get serious shivers from watching A Star is Born.
A frisson is weird and ephemeral, and often dependent on the emotions we attach to what we see and hear. Music is one of the most common frisson triggers, and the one that is most often studied by scientists. Yet the piece of music that will cause a frisson in any given research participant is highly individual.
“We have people bring in a piece of music that gives them chills,” says Matthew Sachs, a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California who has studied the phenomenon.
Even with hand-picked music, Sachs says, reproducing that frisson in the lab isn’t simple. Reactions to music can change over time or be stifled by distraction or surroundings. “It’s very tricky, and there are so many factors at play.”
Science has nailed down a few things about the frisson, however. The sound of a high note often triggers it. “There’s something about the high-pitched sound that sort of shrill sound that is the fear trigger,” Sachs says. “When you hear it in music it’s beautiful because it’s surrounded by the background of the music, but the high-pitched voice still triggers that sort of warning – almost like a scream, right? So we know that people tend to get chills from high-pitched notes.”
Sachs’ favourite example of this is the backing track from the Rolling Stones song Gimme Shelter, in which backup singer Merry Clayton wails “rape, murder, it’s just a shot away”.
“I’d say about 80 per cent of people get chills from that one,” he says.
The initial response in the brain is, according to research, a leftover evolutionary response to danger. “Biologically, the experience of chills or hair standing on end is usually a response to something surprising or unexpected,” Sachs said.
“So the reaction to that unexpected sound prepares you to respond to something that might be threatening or threaten your ability to survive.”
It’s possible that your hair stands on end in an attempt to make your physical presence more aggressive or threatening – like a frightened cat with arched back and raised hackles.
When the cause of that fear response is aesthetic, however, the brain shifts direction. After the initial shock, cognitive systems start reassessing the level of threat – and rapidly decide no action is needed. The release from potential threat causes a soothing dose of dopamine to wash over the brain.
“The feeling of the enjoyment,” Sachs says, “is that feeling of the reappraisal response.”
After hearing a piece of music several times, the initial surprise response is sometimes replaced with an anticipatory shock and the expectation that pleasure will follow immediately after. “Some pieces of music will always give a person chills, no matter how many times they hear it,” Sachs says.
If you find the right piece, you can have a reliable source of frisson at your fingertips, which is why more than 170,000 people have posted potential frisson triggers to the frisson Reddit group. “It’s pleasure-seeking,” Sachs says.
The fact that it is also tied to emotion, personality and imagination makes a frisson an even more highly charged, individual and elusive experience.
“People will often bring in a piece of music (that causes a frisson) and have a story about it,” Sachs says. “A lot of times it’s, ‘This was playing at my friend’s funeral.’ But if you were playing Smash Mouth at the funeral, I don’t think you’d have the same reaction to that music. It probably wouldn’t cause chills.
“Emotion plays a big part, but the most universal triggers are a piece of music with the right sounds that is also attached to emotion.”
That explains highly touted frisson triggers such as Lady Gaga’s 2016 Super Bowl national anthem performance, which has been the darling of the Reddit frisson group.
Sachs’ research showed that the neural track between the auditory and pleasure centres of the brain was more robust in people who experience frissons, compared with people who do not, meaning that if you are someone who gets the chills, the physical structure of your brain might enable that sensation. It also might help explain why music figures so prominently in discussions of frisson.
Frissons have also been shown to be a marker for the personality trait known as openness to experience: If you get the chills from music, you are likely to have a higher level of the trait, which connotes enjoyment of new experiences, but is also tied to things like imagination and creativity.
Imagination explains sentimental chills when hearing things like Isn’t She Lovely – it’s not so much the music, but imagining Stevie Wonder’s intense joy at the birth of his daughter that gets the frisson going.
The openness personality trait has had a lot of attention lately, as a trait more likely to be found among people who identify as liberals than those who identify as conservative. It’s also been shown to decrease with age, meaning that research subjects score higher in openness in their teens and 20s.