Why do we like to be scared? The science behind the screams

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  • While some avoid fear at all costs, many others revel in the adrenaline rush of a good scare
  • A sociologist explains why being terrified can thrill, excite and allow us to get a ‘natural high’
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Here’s the science behind why being frightened can be fun, at least for some people. Photo: Shutterstock

Science can explain why some people love the heart-pounding, chest- tightening, jumping-out-of-your-seat feeling of a good scare.

It is an evolutionary core emotion that causes us to react when we sense danger, real or perceived. While we cannot always control what scares us, Halloween offers opportunities to make a choice to expose ourselves to those things.

That sense of control, choosing to do something scary, is what can make fear fun, said Margee Kerr, a sociologist and author of the book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.

“As soon as you take that away,” she said, “it’s a different story.”

The Inquirer talked to experts about why some people like to be scared – and when a thrill can turn harmful.

Why do people like to be scared?

Three factors contribute to why some people like to get scared, said Kerr, a part-time professor at the University of Pittsburgh who researches fear.

  • Psychological: Challenging a fear can lead to a sense of accomplishment that is akin to running a marathon or scaling a mountain. “I did this really stressful thing and because I chose to do it, I can own this sense of accomplishment,” Kerr said.

  • Physical: Our bodies react to fear by increasing adrenaline and epinephrine. In short spurts, this feeling can be a thrilling “natural high”. In the right context, this “fight or flight” feeling “can make us feel strong and almost euphoric,” Kerr said.

  • Social: Emotions run high when doing something scary, and sharing the experience with friends can make you feel closer. “You feel solidarity and part of something bigger than yourself,” Kerr said.

What’s the difference between a good and bad scare?

Fear ceases to be fun when you feel out of control, Kerr said.

Consider the choice to go into a haunted house: You do not know what’s happening, but there’s still a sense you can leave at any time, Kerr said. “When that is taken away, that is when real fear sets in.”

Why do not some people like to be scared?

It is totally fine if you do not like the thrill of fear. The physical feelings of the chest tightening and heart racing are not for everyone.

For some, certain types of scares may be triggering – for instance, bodily gore or violence. A negative past experience may influence what types of scary things are off-limits, she said.

Is there any benefit to getting scared?

Confronting things that scare you or make you uncomfortable can make you more adaptable and resilient according to Kerr. That does not mean you should force yourself into a haunted house. Try a new food or physical activity, or watch a documentary that is outside your normal interests.

“I tried doing a cartwheel the other day,” Kerr said. “It was terrifying.”

The idea is to challenge yourself to try something that is easier to avoid. “The more we start avoiding things, we continue to adapt downward until our life is very small,” she said.

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