Halloween is just about a week away and in many communities, there are already jack-o-lanterns, skeletons, monsters and ghosts decorating yards and front porches. Many of these decorations are scary but also have a playful, whimsical touch to them.
Starting in October, there are all types of local scary attractions to visit like the “Field of Screams,” “Devil’s Playground,” and the “Twisted Field of Terror” to name a few. These attractions usually feature bloody ghouls, monsters, roaring chainsaws, and plenty of frightening action meant to terrorize us.
In other scary places, like the old prison in Philadelphia, visitors can select the level of intensity they want to experience during their visit, going all the way up be being physically roughed up! To think that thousands of us pay serious money to visit these places and be scared is a bit of a mystery.
What is it about human nature that we enjoy being scared? Whether attending Halloween fright-fests, watching horror movies, or waiting in line for hours to ride an intense roller coaster, there is no question that many human beings expend significant resources so they can experience fear.
From a psychological perspective, this seems counterintuitive since so much of our brain works hard to create safety and to protect us. In fact, most of our midbrain is designed to serve as an alarm system meant to preserve our life and keep us safe. So, why then, would we want to intentionally tweak that part of our humanity by putting ourselves in situations where we feel endangered or threatened?
Most people’s explanation for this seeming contradiction is because “it’s fun!” We seem to enjoy the high stimulation and the physical arousal that accompanies fear. When our somewhat primitive mid-brain perceives a threat, it sends adrenaline pumping into our body, along with corticosteroids (anti-inflammatories) while constricting our blood vessels and increasing our heart rate. All of this is to prepare us for the physical demands of conflict.
It seems that when we are in that physiological state, we feel invigorated and powerful. We may feel acutely alert and energized and ready for action. For some people that may not only be experienced as pleasurable but may even be psychologically addictive.
It appears likely that the blessings of modern life, which for the most part is safe and predictable, are intensifying our urge for adrenaline eliciting experiences. It may be that feeling truly alive requires some amount of risk or fear. After all, in pre-modern times, the willingness and ability to face risk and fear undoubtedly contributed to the survival and the likelihood of one’s genes entering into the gene pool.
Maybe the midbrain’s security functions are part of the explanation for the fear phenomenon. Just like we need to test our home security systems to make sure they are working, maybe we unconsciously also need to test our personal alarm system. Seeking thrills may represent a part of us that needs to be exercised once and a while in order to stay healthy and alert.
Designed thrills at Halloween and other times of the year are meant to be safe. Another part of our brain is aware of this or we wouldn’t engage in the activity at all. These experiences illustrate the dichotomy or the differences between different parts of the brain. The midbrain, which isn’t particularly analytical, serves as our security system and responds to any potential threat. At the same time, higher brain centers in the neo-cortex may know better and serve as the moderating influence. The tension between the two may be where the pleasure lies.
Some psychologists believe that dysfunction in this system such as a lack of communication between brain areas is why some people experience intense fear and anxiety. Their alarm system is coming on too often and too intensely, while the moderating influence of higher brain centers is limited or ineffective. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help to unite these systems so that the fear occurs less often, and the brain becomes better at moderating it when it does.
Maybe one of the secrets to a good life is balancing the amount of risk we subject ourselves too. We don’t want to live in a safe little bubble, after all, what would be the point? At the same time, most of us don’t want to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel either. Halloween, and other scary ventures allow us to “wake-up” to life and feel energized without really risking our safety!
Scott E. Smith, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist with Spectrum Behavioral Health in Arnold, Annapolis and Crofton MD. To contact Dr. Smith, please call 410-757-2077 or write to 1511 Ritchie Hwy., Suite 202, Arnold, MD. 21012