From horror films to rollercoasters (and not forgetting Halloween) a great number of us actively seek out and celebrate being scared. But what makes people do something that isn’t meant to feel enjoyable?
Fear can be a very useful emotion, and the evolutionary benefits of being scared are obvious. Our ancestors needed to acknowledge and respond to their fears to avoid predators and violence. Without that they wouldn’t have survived to become our ancestors.
Like many of our mental processes though fear can sometimes end up working in ways that aren’t useful. The response that is designed to keep us safe can trigger to soon or at too low a stimulus. The result can be anxieties and phobias about objects and situations that other people find completely non-threatening.
Given that it is designed to feel unpleasant, and can malfunction into phobias, why do some people actively seek out being scared? The answer seems to lie in our brain chemistry.
Fear triggers our ‘fight or flight’ response, producing adrenaline and dopamine, the brain’s ‘reward’ chemical. These are produced whether we’re being scared by a real-world situation or a by a film or book.
The simplest explanation for why people like being scared is “excitation transfer”. In a nutshell this recognizes that the stimulation and benefits of the fight-or-flight response make other experiences more immediate and engaging. We enjoy jumping at a scary film because it gives us a heightened experience.
An alternative explanation is based around the brain’s ‘reward-pathway’. This is the area of the brain that reinforces certain behaviours that it approves of, such as eating high calorie foods when we’re hungry. These are behaviours about survival and self-protection, and that would include surviving a threatening situation. Because of our primitive fight-or-flight response threatening situations could also include horror films and theme-park rides.
Both of these explanations require us at some level to still feel safe. Although we might be cared by a film we know that it’s only on the screen, just as at the same level we trust the theme park ride to be fundamentally safe.
For’ thrill-seekers’ however feeling safe isn’t necessary – in fact it may even stop their enjoyment. These people seem to lack the normal cap on dopamine, and so gain increasing rewards from being increasingly scared. For most of us however feeling safe gives us the space in which to enjoy the physical sensations that come with being scared.
It’s when we don’t have that space, when events are traumatic, that we see conditions like PTSD develop.
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