Fright or Flight: Why Thrill Seekers like being Scared

Most people plan on wandering through a pitch-black haunted house or watching a nail-biting horror movie during the month of October, especially in honor of Halloween. Some people’s addiction to fright can be dissected using expert opinions.

People’s enthrallment with horror and fright is evident in the fact that Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights has become the theme park’s signature attraction for now 26 years. Although the park does not release official attendance figures, Fox News experts estimate an extra 600,000 guests attend the park during the extended hours to get scared.

“The appeal of evil drives the $500 million haunted-attraction industry and $400 million at the box office for horror films each year,” states The Haunted House Associations.

Frank Farley, Ph.D. and former president of the American Psychological Association, explains our morbid curiosity in fright during an interview with Apex Magazine, “Through movies we’re able to see horror in front of our eyes, and some people are extremely fascinated by it.”

“Another perspective is Freud’s Thanatos or death drive theory, which relates to a general fascination with death violence and aggression,” said Dr. Antonio Laverghetta Ph.D. and psychology professor. “By seeing it in films and wanting to experience it first hand in the haunted house, it’s sort of like a modeling effect.”

“In terms of biology, the amygdala is the particular part of the brain related to learning and fear. It is a tiny almond-shaped structure deep in the brain connected to other structures, such as the frontal lobes and the cortex,” said Laverghetta. “The amygdala plays a role in recognizing fear in coordination with the outer part of the brain, the cortex, which is used for decision-making.”

According to Business Insider, Psychology Professor Abigail Marsh of Georgetown University describes in depth how the brain physiologically processes fear:

That signal travels to the amygdala (located near the base of the brain.) The amygdala fires off a chemical called glutamate into two other brain regions. The first will cause an automatically freezing or jumping response to being scared, while the signal is sent deep in the brain’s base. The second signal is sent to the hypothalamus and triggers the autonomic nervous system. This section of the nervous system is responsible for the fight or flight instinct- the elevation of heart rate, blood pressure, and pumping of adrenaline through the body, causing the rush felt experiencing fear.

When Laverghetta was asked why people like being scared, he responded using the theory of classical conditioning in terms of physiological responses: “Being scared causes elevations in dopamine and adrenaline levels in response to the stimulus, which produces an addicting and rewarding feeling; it’s a lot like riding a roller coaster.”

This explanation goes along with Farley’s studies of people who thrive on riding roller coasters: “there’s almost nothing else, including sex, that can match it in terms of the incredible sensory experience that the body is put through.”

To summarize the stages of fear, the first evolutionary response is to freeze and stay hidden from the sensed predator; second, the adrenaline coursing through the veins is the instinct to escape that danger; third, if running away is not an option, the adrenaline aids in mustering up the strength to fight off the predator.

However, if there is not any real life danger, the body reverses the response to fear with the parasympathetic nervous system. This system changes the adrenaline flow and lowers the heart rate. This is the reason behind the reaction to a jump-scare during a scary movie is after the brain recognizes the threat is not real, the parasympathetic nervous system calms the body down.

“In the James-Lange theory, physiological arousal makes you scared … For example, if you see a bear in the woods your initial response is to run,” explained Laverghetta regarding one of the many different philosophies that can explain why people like being scared. “Lange’s theory differs in that the physiological arousal of running – the adrenaline rush is what makes you afraid.”

Also, according to Advocate Health News, Glenn Sparks, Ph.D., a communications professor at Purdue University, further explains the need for people to expose themselves to horror:

“It’s not that they enjoy being scared, but they get great satisfaction from being able to say that they conquered and mastered something that was threatening,” said Sparks. “They enjoy the feeling that they made it through … At the end of a terrifying movie, an individual may walk out of the theater with a profound sense of relief.”

People expose themselves to horror through the indirect fright in films and direct fright in haunted houses because of they enjoy the release of built up tensions.

Also, people use movies as a vicarious way to escape from the daily stress of life.

“If you look back through history, horror tends to be popular when there is stress in the population,” said Leonard Pickel, owner of Hauntrepreneurs Themed Event Consulting, as an alternative perspective of the allure of horror in an interview with Advertising Age. “When the economy is bad, stress levels are high, people are having trouble, their future is uncertain — that tends to increase the interest in horror and apocalyptic entertainment. It’s an adrenaline rush.”

This underlying stress explains the raised interest in shows like “The Walking Dead,” “Penny Dreadful,” and “American Horror Story,” as well as increased attendance at scary Halloween attractions like “Halloween Horror Nights.”

“It could be a combination of all of those things to explain why thrill seekers like fear,” said Laverghetta. “The thrill and adrenaline rush of danger can be reinforcing and rewarding; seeing these things can be a vicarious way to experience them; and it can relieve tension by escapism.”

Essentially, experts believe that it is common for individuals to push their nervous systems to the edge, seeing how much they can tolerate fear, and feel a sense of satisfaction after enduring the anxiety.

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