October 29, 2020
The Psychology of Fear

The Psychology of Fear

Read on as we dive into the psychology of fear. Almost every person on earth is afraid of one thing or another. Whether it be something small and almost superficial, like snakes or spiders, or something deeper and under-the-surface, such as death or the loss of a loved one, there’s an object or an idea that sends shivers up nearly everyone’s spines. While some people try to avoid their fears, others love the feeling of being scared and go out of their way to be afraid, watching horror movies, visiting haunted houses, or reading terrifying novels. Staying away from the feeling of fear would seem like an obvious idea, but why can fear also be so much fun?

Why do Some People Like Being Scared?

Sociology is a common enough field for a person to go into, but what isn’t so common is to refer to a person as a “fear expert”, or as a “scare specialist”, the name sociologist Margee Kerr is often called. Kerr works for an extreme haunted house in Pennsylvania called ScareHouse, which takes all year to set up. She studies the brain’s reaction to fear- why some people like it and some people don’t, the chemistry that happens in our brains when we are afraid, and even how scary things have evolved over time.

Kerr explains that some people hate the feeling of being scared, while others love it for many reasons, which include self-satisfaction, curiosity, and the chemical response that comes from the flight-or-fight reaction. When a person is scared, a hormone called dopamine is released from the brain and gives them a “natural high”, or a feeling of excitement and happiness. Some brains release more dopamine than others do, explaining why some people enjoy being scared more than others do. Self-satisfaction is another big reason why people enjoy the thrill of fear. When a person watches a whole scary movie or conquers one of their biggest fears, they feel proud of themselves and may be more willing to try another experience like the one they just had. Additionally, humans are always looking for something new and exciting to try; they are curious about new experiences and about things that scare them. Humans are constantly trying to break the mold of normalcy and experience new things- terror can satisfy that need.

The Role That Safety Plays

Kerr made it clear that the reason some people enjoy fear is because they know there is a certain “safety net” underneath them; that they aren’t really in a life-threatening scenario, and the terrifying elements will be temporary. One of the reasons that haunted houses are so popular is because people know that they aren’t really going to be harmed by the clowns with chainsaws behind them, that the gorilla that just jumped out from behind the wall doesn’t have any horrible intentions. People can go from screaming in terror to laughing in moments, which just goes to show how quickly the brain can process if threats are real or not.

Kerr also says that because children’s brains may not be developed enough to determine if a threat is real or not, it isn’t always a good idea to have them go through haunted houses, to see a scary movie, or to put them in otherwise terrifying situations. The kids may not be aware that the threat is temporary and fictional, and it may leave them mentally traumatized.

Past and Present

Humans have been scaring themselves for centuries, just like we do today. While Stephen King movies and elaborate haunted houses like the one Margee Kerr works for may not have existed back in the Stone Age, telling ghost stories around the campfire and creating monsters like Bigfoot, zombies, and vampires certainly did. So next Halloween, whether you find yourself safe and comfortable at home or looking for thrill at a haunted house, remember the chemistry in your brain that causes your reaction to fear.