Why is it fun to be fright­ened?

Malta Independent - - Feature -

John Car­pen­ter’s iconic hor­ror film “Halloween” cel­e­brates its 40th an­niver­sary this year. Few hor­ror movies have achieved sim­i­lar no­to­ri­ety, and it’s cred­ited with kick­ing off the steady stream of slasher flicks that fol­lowed.

Au­di­ences flocked to the­aters to wit­ness the seem­ingly ran­dom mur­der and may­hem a masked man brought to a small sub­ur­ban town, re­mind­ing them that picket fences and man­i­cured lawns can­not pro­tect us from the un­just, the un­known or the un­cer­tainty that awaits us all in both life and death. The film of­fers no jus­tice for the vic­tims in the end, no re­bal­anc­ing of good and evil.

Why, then, would any­one want to spend their time and money to watch such macabre scenes filled with de­press­ing re­minders of just how un­fair and scary our world can be?

I’ve spent the past 10 years in­ves­ti­gat­ing just this ques­tion, find­ing the typ­i­cal an­swer of “Be­cause I like it! It’s fun!” in­cred­i­bly un­sat­is­fy­ing. I’ve long been con­vinced there’s more to it than the “nat­u­ral high” or adren­a­line rush many de­scribe – and in­deed, the body does kick into “go” mode when you’re star­tled or scared, amp­ing up not only adren­a­line but a mul­ti­tude of chem­i­cals that en­sure your body is fu­eled and ready to re­spond. This “fight or flight” re­sponse to threat has helped keep hu­mans alive for mil­len­nia.

That still doesn’t ex­plain why peo­ple would want to in­ten­tion­ally scare them­selves, though. As a so­ci­ol­o­gist, I’ve kept ask­ing “But, why?” Af­ter two years col­lect­ing data in a haunted at­trac­tion with my col­league Greg Siegle, a cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh, we’ve found the gains from thrills and chills can go fur­ther than the nat­u­ral high.

Study­ing fear at a ter­ri­fy­ing at­trac­tion

To cap­ture in real time what makes fear fun, what mo­ti­vates peo­ple to pay to be scared out of their skin and what they ex­pe­ri­ence when en­gag­ing with this ma­te­rial, we needed to gather data in the field. In this case, that meant set­ting up a mo­bile lab in the base­ment of an ex­treme haunted at­trac­tion out­side Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia.

This adults-only ex­treme at­trac­tion went be­yond the typ­i­cal star­tling lights and sounds and an­i­mated char­ac­ters found in a fam­ily-friendly haunted house. Over the course of about 35 min­utes, vis­i­tors ex­pe­ri­enced a se­ries of in­tense sce­nar­ios where, in ad­di­tion to un­set­tling char­ac­ters and spe­cial ef­fects, they were touched by the ac­tors, re­strained and exposed to elec­tric­ity. It was not for the faint of heart.

For our study, we re­cruited 262 guests who had al­ready pur­chased tick­ets. Be­fore they en­tered the at­trac­tion, each com­pleted a sur­vey about their ex­pec­ta­tions and how they were feel­ing. We had them an­swer ques­tions again about how they were feel­ing once they had gone through the at­trac­tion.

We also used mo­bile EEG tech­nol­ogy to com­pare 100 par­tic­i­pants’ brain­wave ac­tiv­ity as they sat through 15 min­utes of var­i­ous cog­ni­tive and emo­tional tasks be­fore and af­ter the at­trac­tion.

Guests re­ported sig­nif­i­cantly higher mood, and felt less anx­ious and tired, di­rectly af­ter their trip through the haunted at­trac­tion. The more ter­ri­fy­ing the bet­ter: Feel­ing happy af­ter­ward was re­lated to rat­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence as highly in­tense and scary. This set of vol­un­teers also re­ported feel­ing that they’d chal­lenged their per­sonal fears and learned about them­selves.

Anal­y­sis of the EEG data re­vealed wide­spread de­creases in brain re­ac­tiv­ity from be­fore to af­ter among those whose mood im­proved. In other words, highly in­tense and scary ac­tiv­i­ties – at least in a con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment like this haunted at­trac­tion – may “shut down” the brain to an ex­tent, and that in turn is as­so­ci­ated with feel­ing bet­ter. Stud­ies of those who prac­tice mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion have made a sim­i­lar ob­ser­va­tion.

Com­ing out stronger on the other side

To­gether our find­ings sug­gest that go­ing through an ex­treme haunted at­trac­tion pro­vides gains sim­i­lar to choos­ing to run a 5K race or tack­ling a dif­fi­cult climb­ing wall. There’s a sense of un­cer­tainty, phys­i­cal ex­er­tion, a chal­lenge to push your­self – and even­tu­ally achieve­ment when it’s over and done with. Fun-scary ex­pe­ri­ences could serve as an in-the-mo­ment re­cal­i­bra­tion of what reg­is­ters as stress­ful and even pro­vide a kind of con­fi­dence boost. Af­ter watch­ing a scary movie or go­ing through a haunted at­trac­tion, maybe ev­ery­thing else seems like no big deal in com­par­i­son. You ra­tio­nally un­der­stand that the ac­tors in a haunted house aren’t real, but when you sus­pend your dis­be­lief and al­low your­self to be­come im­mersed in the ex­pe­ri­ence, the fear cer­tainly can feel real, as does the sat­is­fac­tion and sense of ac­com­plish­ment when you make it through. As I ex­pe­ri­enced my­self af­ter all kinds of scary ad­ven­tures in Ja­pan, Colom­bia and all over the U.S., con­fronting a horde of zom­bies can ac­tu­ally make you feel pretty in­vin­ci­ble.

Movies like “Halloween” al­low peo­ple to tackle the big, ex­is­ten­tial fears we all have, like why bad things hap­pen with­out rea­son, through the pro­tec­tive frame of en­ter­tain­ment. Choos­ing to do fun, scary ac­tiv­i­ties may also serve as a way to prac­tice be­ing scared, build­ing greater self­knowl­edge and re­silience, sim­i­lar to rough-and-tum­ble play. It’s an op­por­tu­nity to en­gage with fear on your own terms, in en­vi­ron­ments where you can push your bound­aries, safely. Be­cause you’re not in real dan­ger, and thus not oc­cu­pied with sur­vival, you can choose to ob­serve your re­ac­tions and how your body changes, gain­ing greater insight to your­self.

What it takes to be safely scared

While there are count­less dif­fer­ences in the na­ture, con­tent, in­ten­sity and over­all qual­ity of haunted at­trac­tions, hor­ror movies and other forms of scary en­ter­tain­ment, they all share a few crit­i­cal com­po­nents that help pave the way for a fun scary time.

First and fore­most, you have to make the choice to en­gage – don’t drag your best friend with you un­less she is also on board. But do try to gather some friends when you’re ready. When you en­gage in ac­tiv­i­ties with other peo­ple, even just watch­ing a movie, your own emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence is in­ten­si­fied. Do­ing in­tense, ex­cit­ing and thrilling things to­gether can make them more fun and help cre­ate re­ward­ing so­cial bonds. Emo­tions can be con­ta­gious, so when you see your friend scream and laugh, you may feel com­pelled to do the same.

No mat­ter the po­ten­tial ben­e­fits, hor­ror movies and scary en­ter­tain­ment are not for ev­ery­one, and that’s OK. While the fight-or­flight re­sponse is univer­sal, there are im­por­tant dif­fer­ences be­tween in­di­vid­u­als – for ex­am­ple, in ge­netic ex­pres­sions, en­vi­ron­ment and per­sonal his­tory – that help ex­plain why some loathe and oth­ers love thrills and chills.

Re­gard­less of your taste (or dis­taste) for all things hor­ror or thrill-re­lated, an ad­ven­tur­ous and cu­ri­ous mind­set can ben­e­fit ev­ery­one. Af­ter all, we’re the de­scen­dants of those who were ad­ven­tur­ous and cu­ri­ous enough to ex­plore the new and novel, but also quick and smart enough to run or fight when dan­ger ap­peared. This Halloween, maybe chal­lenge your­self to at least one fun scary ex­pe­ri­ence and pre­pare to un­leash your in­ner su­per­hero.

This ar­ti­cle is re­pub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion un­der a Cre­ative Com­mons li­cense. Read the orig­i­nal ar­ti­cle here: http://the­con­ver­sa­tion.com/why-isit-fun-to-be-fright­ened-101055.

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