The Science of Fear

science of fear scared

There’s a haunted house in Nashville, Tenn., that is reportedly so scary that people can’t walk through until they prove they are physically and mentally stable enough to handle it. McKamey Manor describes itself as a “rough, intense and truly frightening experience” that supposedly no one has been able to complete. “Understand,” the website’s disclaimer reads, “that each tour will be different based upon your personal fears, and can last up to 10 hours. Each guest will be mentally and physically challenged until you reach your personal breaking point.”

Why would anyone want to put themselves through that? Because there are plenty of people who enjoy being scared. We even have a whole holiday dedicated to the celebration of fear.

“I like being scared,” admits Laurie Pachorek of Oakley, Calif. “That feeling of my stomach jumping up into my throat and the reflex reaction of a scream that gets my heart beating and my ears ringing and leaves me a little breathless followed by that adrenaline surge that leaves me giggly and reminiscent is the goal.”

Turns out, there’s a scientific explanation for it. Fear — at least several versions of it — can actually be pleasant or rewarding, says Dr. Lani Shiota, an associate psychology professor at Arizona State University. It has to do with the way our emotional system is set up.

“Our instinctive response to the appearance of danger can create a rush of fight-or-flight energy that is exhilarating, even while our conscious, rational mind understands that we are safe,” Shiota says. “Horror movies, haunted houses and similar kinds of experience all toy with this edge.”

It’s not fun, however, to feel as if you are actually in serious danger, which does make you wonder why anyone would brave something like McKamey Manor, where the scarers can touch and even hurt people. In most haunted houses, the ghosts and ghouls can’t touch the participants.

How Our Brains Handle Fear

The sympathetic nervous system carries instructions from the hypothalamus in the brain to the organs that create that “fight-or-flight” response, Shiota says. Your body gets ready to respond to danger or stress, preparing your muscles to work hard to escape danger. It’s a reaction that goes back to the very beginning, to protect organisms against a perceived threat.

A threat, such as the sight of something fearsome, triggers a response in the brain, activating other areas of the body in preparation for that fight or flight. A turtle goes back into its shell; a hedgehog curls up in a ball; a human gets anxious.

“What many people don’t realize is that the ‘fight-flight’ system is also engaged in lots of pleasurable, rewarding situations as well,” Shiota says. “After all, we also have to use our muscles to move toward rewards in the environment, as well as escape threats.”

It’s the context of the situation that matters when it comes to fear. If you go through a haunted house during Halloween season, your brain is likely in a high arousal state. You anticipate something jumping at you but know it’s not really a threat, so your brain relabels the experience as fun and exciting instead of actually terrifying.

“The good scare is the kind I like,” Pachorek says. “The type of scare you get from a roller coaster or a haunted house. Where your brain is ready and you know something is coming. You don’t know what, but ultimately you know you are relatively ‘safe.’ ”

Controlled Fear

Controlled, safe scares are what places like Busch Gardens go for. This is the 21st year the Williamsburg amusement park has held Howl-O-Scream, in which the park is decorated for Halloween and full of haunted houses, costumed characters and lots of things that go bump in the night.

“It’s fun to be able to experience intense emotions such as fear and surprise in a safe and controlled place,” says Matthew Edwards, events leader for Busch Gardens Williamsburg. “It allows our guests to feel the emotional response to fear without having the adverse characteristics that come with real-life panic.”

Experiencing frightening things with other people can lead to positive emotions, according to Arash Javanbakht and Linda Saab, two psychiatry professors at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich., who wrote a paper on fear and why people like it.

Emotions can be contagious in a positive way,” they said. “We are social creatures, able to learn from one another. So when you look over to your friend at the haunted house and she’s quickly gone from screaming to laughing, socially you’re able to pick up on her emotional state, which can positively influence your own.”

Some people, of course, still don’t like being scared, even if they know it’s not real. It might simply mean their brains process things differently. If someone perceives something — the maniacal-looking clown, the chainsaw-wielding man — as too real, the extreme fear response can overcome any sense of control in the situation.

Fear can be a double-edged sword, admits Pachorak. “I sometimes find myself alone at night not willing to get up and go to the restroom because I’m scared of what may jump out or lurk behind the corner,” she says.

The rest of us are all too happy to get our boo on.

What Scares Us

There’s a name for just about everything that scares us. Here are some examples:

  • Phasmophobia: An intense fear of supernatural things
  • Autophobia: Fear of being alone
  • Nyctophobia: Fear of the dark
  • Aerophobia: Fear of flying
  • Sciophobia: Fear of shadows
  • Sanguivoriphobia: Fear of vampires
  • Nomophobia: Fear of being away from your mobile phone
  • Thalassophobia: Fear of the ocean
  • Pediophobia: Fear of dolls
  • Astraphobia: Fear of thunder and lightning
  • Bibliophobia: Fear of books
  • Chionophobia: Fear of snow
  • Elurophobia: Fear of cats
  • Porphyrophobia: Fear of the color purple
  • Scolionophobia: Fear of school
  • Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia: Fear of long words
  • Coulrophobia: Fear of clowns
  • Cynophobia: Fear of dogs
  • Barophobia: Fear of gravity

About the author

Kim O'Brien Root

Kim O'Brien Root was a newspaper reporter — writing for papers in Virginia and Connecticut — for 15 years before she took a break to be a stay-at-home mom. When the lure of writing became too strong, she began freelancing and then took on the role of the Health Journal’s editor in Dec. 2017. She juggles work with being a chronic volunteer for two PTAs
and the Girl Scouts. She lives in Hampton, Virginia with her husband, a fellow journalist, their two children and a dog.

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