October is here which means scary movies are finally back in season. The visceral response to fear is absolute: the goosebumps from a person entering a dark room they should NOT be investigating, the semi-brave split fingers over the eyes to hide from horror, or even the overturned popcorn after an unexpected jump scare. Like riding a roller coaster, a good scary movie can be a controlled environment for a thrilling experience. Fear is so powerful because it has a direct line to the primal portion of the brain, bypassing the areas for logic and reason.
Dr. Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear, reports, “The neurotransmitters and hormones that are released are helping us prepare to fight or flee, at the same time our attention is shifting away from abstract thoughts and focusing on issues of survival.”
Kerr explains in her TED talk that when we are afraid, “All of our attention and all of our resources are reprioritized to being alive, to being strong, to surviving.” She continues, “and in the absence of real threat, that can feel pretty good. It can feel exhilarating.”
“As soon as we realize that we’re not in fact going to die we can enjoy the arousal response — that’s when fear can be fun. You’re in the moment, and afterwards you feel like you overcame a challenge, so you feel more confident about the real, not ‘scary fun’ threats that await you in the future. It feels like a sense of accomplishment, like running a marathon or rock climbing,” Kerr told NBC news.
“Fear responses produce endorphins, which can be a sort of natural high,” Christopher Bader, professor of sociology, explained to NBC News. Surviving and escaping fear is a natural part of the brain’s reward system, similar to the way we feel good after eating. Fear responses release chemicals in the body that can elevate our mood, even if you turn off the lights less.
The way the brain responds to fear is a similar process to what happens when drugs enter the body, but fear has none of the major negative side effects that drugs do. When a drug like heroin enters the body, it floods the brain with endorphins, causing a feeling of euphoria. However, the problem with drugs is that they rewire the brain, rendering endorphins less effective at creating joy and causing addictive behavior. Drugs, unlike the controlled fear in a scary movie, do permanent damage to the brain and can even force the body to shut down through overdose.
This blog is not an endorsement of thrill-seeking or a promotion of finding means for a natural high. Drugs are bad for you. However, this comparison does show that pursuits in our daily lives offer avenues of sober enjoyment. So as the temperature continues to fall and you find yourself in the mood for a fright, watch a heart-pounding horror flick. Let the chills wash over you in celebration, and enjoy an activity in line with the season. Experience this Halloween sober, strong, and alive.