Here’s why getting scared gets you off — according to science
Halloween is heaven for those who revel in horror flicks and haunted houses, for those macabre souls who enjoy the hair-raising pangs of terror. Fear is an emotion sparked by perceptions of threat; its core function is to help us avoid peril.
From a survival-based perspective, we’re not supposed to find pleasure in feeling scared. Yet many of us spend good time and money to court the heebie-jeebies. We genuinely enjoy the experience. And, according to research on fear, overlapping behavioral and neurological factors may explain why so many of us prefer to Netflix-and-chill with The Walking Dead than Veep.
Some scientists believe that non-life-threatening fear — e.g., watching The Shining alone in a cabin in the woods — is a close relative of excitement. Fear, they say, is enjoyable in a safe environment because it prompts a flight-or-fight chemical rush, without the actual jeopardy. And our brains, being so damn clever, can actually distinguish between fun-scary and holy-shit-I’m-going-to-die scary. Another notion says we court fear because we love when it’s over; we know a euphoric relief is coming when the frightening is finished.
But yet another theory challenges an assumption made by the first two: that negative and positive emotions are mutually exclusive. In a 2007 study, consumer science researchers argued that the brain can simultaneously venture into both safe and dark waters. In other words, we can be perfectly happy being scared (or being sad, for that matter).
Consider the amygdala, that wee part of the brain involved in emotional responses. It flares up when we’re scared or anxious. It also flares up when we experience other strong, salient emotions. Research suggests we retain stronger memories of emotionally salient experiences.
Therefore, if we’re happy to be scared, we’re likely to have especially vivid memories of scenarios involving these two salient emotions. For those who thrive on this seeming dichotomy, a freaky kid croaking redrum may serve as a nostalgia trigger. It’s just fun.
Additionally, as The Atlantic reported, there’s strong evidence that, more so than others, some of us are chemically wired to get off on thrills. When we’re scared, our brains release neurotransmitters, including the pleasure chemical dopamine. Some brains squeeze out more dopamine. More dopamine, more pleasure. Even when it’s a fright show out there.