NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Whether you’re hanging up the last of your Halloween decorations, putting the finishing touches on your costume, watching scary movies, or eating unhealthy amounts of candy (or all four), have you ever stopped to wonder why many people enjoy being scared so much so that there’s a whole holiday dedicated to the element of fear?
A study conducted by Concordia University, St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota, said the enjoyment some people get from fear is likely not from fear itself.
Instead, the thrills come from “the physical and emotional release that follows scary situations,” according to Seeker, a division of Discovery.
It all stems from one key neurotransmitter in the brain – dopamine – which acts as a chemical messenger, communicating messages between nerve cells in your brain and throughout the rest of your body.
“Scary and thrilling situations release dopamine in the brain,” said Dr. Olubunmi Olatunji, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University. “For some individuals, this release can be exhilarating. As a result, some people will enjoy scary and risky situations, while others may find them aversive.”
Dopamine, known as the “feel-good” hormone, is made by your adrenal gland and the neurotransmitter is known to give you a sense of pleasure.
The more dopamine released, the better you feel, hence why the human brain is hard-wired to find behaviors and activities that release dopamine, vouching for your enjoyment of scary movies, ghost stories, and haunted houses.
Regardless of your go-to source for recreational fear, brain activity is known to increase in tense, thrilling situations.
“When the anticipation is building, regions of the brain involved in visual and auditory perception become more active given the need to attend for cues of threat in the environment,” Dr. Olatunji said. “In the presence of the threat, brain activity is more evident in regions involved in emotion processing, threat evaluation, and decision making.”
A story from The Washington Post said this adrenaline rush is also accompanied by an “opportunity to learn about dealing with scary situations in a safe environment.”
So-called “adrenaline junkies” get a mood boost from recreational fears, thanks in part to our endocrine system releasing adrenaline, noradrenaline, dopamine, endorphins, and the stress hormone cortisol, according to researchers. This neuro response helps prime the body for physical action, known as the fight-or-flight response.
Horror movies, for example, can trigger said fight-or-flight response due to the impending threats we see on screen. However, the brain then quickly processes our surroundings and concludes that the experience we are viewing on screen is, in fact, not a genuine threat, a reason why horror fans habitually watch scary movies over and over again, according to researchers.
The fight-or-flight response is accompanied with an accelerated heart rate, heavy breathing, and other physical sensations. However, researchers said when the brain realizes no imminent danger lurks around the corner, this can be interpreted as a state of arousal and positivity.
When we’ve conquered a challenging or scary activity, oftentimes we become engrossed in feels of confidence, success, and accomplishment. The rush of all the endorphins and chemicals can feel so good to the point where we want to seek out that “high” again. The same holds true for the feeling we get after exercise, as physical activity is known to release endorphins which help relieve stress.
For people who do not consider themselves “horror” fans, true crime podcasts, documentaries, and murder-mystery novels tend to produce a similar reaction. The answer, according to Dr. Olatunji, is all in the human instinct.
“The reality is that it is in our nature to be highly attuned to crime, and we instinctively want to know the who, what, when and where,” Dr. Olatunji said.
Even babies tend to enjoy being scared to an extent, as the game Peek-a-boo serves as a jump scare for infants. Childhood games, such as hide-and-seek, also stimulate a similar high, due to the simulation of a predator vs. prey dynamic.
As another Halloween descends upon us, it’s clear that horror and fear are as abundant in our culture as ever. The cultural and societal interest in horror entertainment appears to have etched itself in the foundation of who human beings are as a species, along with the unique individual interests and traits of others.