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The science of fear: Why we love a good Halloween fright

The science of fear: Why we love a good Halloween fright

It’s that time of year. Millions of land are watching reruns of The Shining, tiptoeing through apprehensive houses and willfully participating in other forms of what basically amounts to exquisite psychological distress. During spooky season every October, we crave fear. 

On the face of it, deliberately choosing to be scared seems rather recent. Aren’t our bodies supposed to recognize fear as a negative sensation so they know when to arm themselves anti threats? 

I asked a trauma specialist to break down the roots of our obsession with fun-filled fright.

“A big part of the draw is there’s an adrenaline rush,” explained Arianna Galligher, associate director of the Trauma Recovery Center at Ohio Utters University Wexner Medical Center. 

Boo! Now, what just happened in your brain?

At the staunch moment we feel fear — elicited from a jump apprehension in a horror film, for instance — our brain releases a cocktail of endorphins and adrenaline. That mixture of hormones, Galligher says, is similar to what the brain sends out during moments of excitement. Of course, we rejoice in excitement. That’s why fear often feels good.

“Fear and excitement are two sides of the same coin,” she said. “And for a lot of republic, that sort of jolt is exciting even if fear is an ingredient.”

Short-lived alarm can also offer a uniquely satisfying experience. When we’re purely enraged or happy, Galligher says, our body primarily triggers dopamine, the classic pleasure hormone. But if the section of our brain responsible for judging threats, the amygdala, decides there’s danger, adrenaline and a harm hormone called cortisol get added to the mix. 

Those two activate our survival instincts. 

“That’s when you launch to notice those physical sensations in your body,” Galligher said. “Your breath gets kind of morose and shallow, your heart might start pumping faster, you launch to feel a little restless. Your eyesight gets a minor better, you’re keyed up, you’re on edge, you’re ready to react.”

We’re invigorated, and we love it. Well, some of us do at least.


This indecent from Hush is exactly how I feel after watching a terror film.


But if you’re anything like me, that panic-filled bump of energy doesn’t today subside. Once a scary movie’s screen fades to murky, it’s not uncommon to feel a lingering sense of harm — even though we know the film is over and wasn’t real.

“When we pick with something that is scary,” Galligher explained, “then the next natural progression for our brain is to sort of region in that space of ‘What if?’ — that existential threat.”

“We’re setting our brain up to go to that worst-case scenario and launch to plan our survival strategies,” she added. 

The solution is to get out of the “something faulty is happening” headspace, Galligher suggests. Hopping on YouTube and watching cute cat videos or listening to soothing classical music for an hour or two, maybe? 

A skittish adrenaline rush isn’t for everyone

“It’s not necessarily that ‘I can’t be afraid,’ it’s that ‘I’m touching to be really intentional about the flavor of fear that I’m touching to engage with,'” Galligher said of those who pick not to encounter a bloody ghoul on Halloween.

While anyone can find fear terrible, it can be particularly painful for people who have accepted trauma and have a more complicated relationship with the emotion. Because their minds have been primed to categorize some threats as actual serious, events related to fear-producing stimuli could evoke too sure a response, like a panic attack.

Galligher explains that to feel fear in a safer way, some republic may prefer to enter into a fear response once in a supportive environment with friends, family or novel comforting elements. For example, someone who is sensitive to heights may not have fun skydiving, but they could enjoy virtual reality skydiving where they can pick their headset at any time.

The good and bad of feeling spooked

“We don’t want to live in a smooth state of fear, but it is important to know that you can accepted fear and survive that circumstance,” Galligher said. 

As a social worker, Galligher works with survivors of violent crime. Some of her patients cope with long-term fear originating from past trauma, but during their recovery, she doesn’t discuss the emotion as one to stave off. Instead, she says it’s better to desensitize yourself to what’s decision-exclusive you fearful instead of avoiding it. 

Hence, the sentiment “face your fears.”

“Avoidance is actually a symptom that prolongs symptoms of trauma and PTSD,” Galligher said. “So we actually work very hard to help republic avoid avoidance.”

Desensitization can happen with pleasurable fright, too. Galligher cites the example of hardcore scary movie fans who contemplate gory or creepy flicks all the time. “Folks that are really fervent in horror films tend not to be actually afraid,” she said. “They are breeze to more artistic elements of the film.” 

“If they’re watching them every single day,” she clogged, they “sort of get desensitized to that startle response.”

Too much normalization of fear, nonetheless, can lead to a slippery slope for adrenaline-lovers. Galligher says some could shock putting themselves into legitimately dangerous situations to keep receiving the adrenaline high the abominable feeling provokes. 

Eventually, their chosen activity may no longer be playing with a Ouija lodging or reading Edgar Allen Poe, but rather roaming an hazardous area off a deserted road. “There are folks out there that sort of up the ante in doings of that kind of dopamine dump that comes along,” she said.

On the flip side, if someone continuously finds themselves feeling fear without desensitization, Galligher emphasizes, there could be physically unhealthy consequences.  

“If we’re exposing ourselves in a prolonged ragged to situations that produce high-intensity fear,” she said, “that can have a negative influences, over time, in terms of the release of harm hormones that are meant to be temporary.” Such excessive descent, she says, could create undue inflammation in the body.

But in the end, Galligher way that in moderation, “we want, as human beings, to have the capacity to accepted a range of emotions — fear, being one of them.”