The Science of a Good Scare

Is it weird that feeling afraid is so fun we have a holiday for it? Besides aiding in survival, the experience of fear can actually be enjoyable.

Published October 25, 2013

The Science of a Good Scare

Happy Halloween! It's the time of year we revel in the revolting and fete our fright. Fear is one of the oldest responses life has evolved to its environment. It's so ancient that it's common to just about all forms of life, explains author Jeff Wise in this podcast.

Is it weird that feeling afraid is so fun we have a holiday for it, or voluntarily watch horror movies, for that matter? Besides aiding in survival, the experience of fear can actually be enjoyable.

This Psychology Today blog considers the addictive potential of adrenaline-inducing extreme sports such as BASE jumping.  In the article, Emory University neuroscientist Dr. Michael Davis discusses the potentially pleasurable biochemistry of our bodies' reaction to fear. "If something scares us, the body immediately releases endorphins, dopamine and norepinephrine. Endorphins mitigate pain. Dopamine and norepinephrine are performance enhancers...The greater the release of these chemicals, the greater the addiction-like symptoms."

Developmental psychologist Nathalia Gjersoe, in this Guardian article, adds,

"One reason adults like being scared so much could be the heady cocktail of a heightened sense of physical awareness with the reassuring knowledge that there is no real threat. In a real emergency [endorphins and dopamine] cushion the immediate blow of potential injury but, when no damage occurs, they simply contribute to the overall sense of excitement."

The important catch is: things have to turn out OK! To enjoy your fear-induced chemical cocktail, you have to really believe in, or have alredy achieved, a happy ending. You know it's just a movie. You're climbing off the landing pad after your bungee cord remained intact, or—due to experience or optimism—you always knew it would be fine. In more technical terms, your interactions with fearful stimuli have occurred within a protective frame.

Professors Joel B. Cohen and Eduardo B. Andrade explain,

"For positive affect to result, one must adopt a frame of mind adequate to convince the person that real danger/threat is not actually present." This de-fanged, fun fear can happen in three different ways: "the confidence frame (i.e., one feels the danger but is confident about his/her skills to deal with it), the safety zone frame (i.e., one places himself/herself sufficiently away from immediate/likely danger), and the detachment frame (i.e., one observes the danger but does not interact with it)."

Young children have less experience than adults on which to base formulations of confidence, safety, or detachment. Kids are more sensitive to and have a harder time rationalizing fear. But, intriguingly, "children, like adults, quite enjoy a good scare," notes Gjersoe. She goes on to describe an experiment:

"Paul Bloom, at Yale University, played four- and five-year-olds videos of other children watching happy, boring or scary movies and then asked them which of the movies they themselves would like to watch. Preliminary evidence suggests that, on the whole, children want to watch the happy movie but the scary movie comes a close second, a long way ahead of the boring movie. Like adults, kids would rather be scared than bored."

So, ghoul it up for your Halloween parties and forge on ahead into the haunted houses. Try to get your friends with an especially good "Boo!" They should thank you for it.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles on nyas.org are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the New York Academy of Sciences.