The science of fear: Why do people love being scared?

Why do we like being scared? [Photo: Getty]

Every Halloween, people try to out-fright one another with the creepiest costumes, get their scare on in a haunted house or up the scream-factor with a terrifying horror film.

The compulsion to feel scared for fun seems somewhat counter-intuitive, but yet we do it anyway.

“When you think of fear (an emotion felt when we perceive threat or danger), or being scared, most people associate it with being jumpy or on edge, nervous, sweating, with an increased heart rate - a typically negative experience. And yet, plenty of us at some point or the other go out in search of being scared,” explains Dr Diana Gall from Doctor4U.

But being scared isn't always fun; when you hear a weird noise in the middle of the night, when you realise someone might be following you or when you’re the only one in and spot a giant, hairy spider having a party in your bath tub.

So, why is it we have a blast watching a slasher flick but putting the bins out after dark, forget about it!?

And why is it some of us seem to enjoy being scared more than others?

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To answer those questions, we first need to look at what actually happens to our bodies when we’re feeling scared.

The tingling on the back of your neck, the goosebumps on your arms, a thumping heart are all physical signs that we’re feeling frightened but what’s going on inside when we get the fear?

“In terms of what happens in our bodies, feeling scared is similar to feeling extremely excited or happy as they both activate our primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, which is linked in with the "fight, fight or freeze system’,” explains Psychologist Dr Rina Bajaj.

“This means that we are in a heightened state or arousal and have a rush of neurotransmitters and chemicals in our body, including adrenaline. This heightens all of the feelings, sensations and emotions in our body, which can help us to feel alive, particularly if our logical brain knows that we are in a safe space.”

Controlled fear Vs real fear

As Dr Gall explains there’s a difference between real fear and thrill-seeking fear.

“Firstly, fear, or being scared triggers our body’s fight or flight response, and when we’re watching a scary movie, or celebrating Halloween, haunted houses, or on a scary ride etc. our body quickly realises that although scary, we’re not in any ‘real’ danger,” Dr Gall explains.

“What we’re really looking for when looking to be scared is ​controlled fear ​- where we know deep down we’re safe,” she adds.

When it comes to 'constructed' fear, such as watching a horror film, the potential effects are similar to any other stressful event, explains Glenys Jackson, Clinical Lead for Mental Health at Bupa.

“This means our heart might pound, we could breathe more quickly, our muscles may tense and we can start to sweat,” she says.

“However, we are aware that this experience is occurring in 'safe conditions' (as we know that what we are seeing isn't real; which would also apply to Halloween immersive experiences, ghost trains etc), so our body doesn't stay in high alert mode and the effects fade once the 'threat' has gone (e.g. when the film finishes).”

So your love of horror films is partly down to the fact that you understand you're in a safe environment. Even though you’re likely terrified watching Pennywise torment a bunch of teens, deep down you know you’re not actually in danger.

But when something in real life brings on the fear, you’re probably much less confident that you’ll come out unscathed.

In other words if your body senses you are not threatened, you will still experience fear, but instead of releasing hormones that make you stronger and faster for defence, your body releases hormones that essentially make you feel good under the right circumstances.

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Some people enjoy feeling fear more than others [Photo: Getty]

The fear hit

Dr Gall says there are a number of theories why we go out in search of this managed-type of fear, including the idea that we have a death drive (Freud), but the prevailing idea is for the chemical release.

“When we get scared our brain releases a rush of dopamine, adrenaline, and endorphins, and once our fight or flight response kicks in, telling us that there’s no real danger, the chemicals linger giving us a sense of euphoria,” she explains.

Humans are also curious by nature, and this can also play a part in why people will go out in search of being scared, simply to understand what is out there and make sense of things.

The love/hate of fear

Of course, not everyone enjoys feeling frightened, in fact some shy away from all things spooky, but turns out there’s a reason why some of us enjoy the thrill of fear more than others.

Kenneth Carter, a clinical psychologist and professor at Oxford College of Emory University told Live Science that those who enjoy a hit of horror have a specific sensation-seeking personality trait.

This trait determines how much we enjoy things like horror movies or hurling yourself out of an aeroplane at 6000ft.

Studies have revealed that those with the sensation-seeking trait typically have lower levels of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol and higher levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in their body.

So, when put into terrifying situations, thrill-seekers experience more pleasure and less stress.

A recent study, published in the journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping found that those with the sensation-seeking trait also tend to be less stressed and perform better in high-risk sports, consequently they are often better suited to high-stress jobs.

Turns out we’ll know whether we’re in the fear-seeking or fear-fearing camp early on as according to a study published in the journal BMC Pediatrics sensation-seeking is a trait that develops in early childhood, as early as age 3.

The research revealed that those with the trait will likely see it grow with age, peaking during the later teenage years, which according to Carter could help explain why so many horror films are aimed at that age group.

So whether you've spent Halloween chasing creepy thrills or last night was mostly spent cowering behind your sofa, just remember there’s actually nothing to fear about feeling fear.