Scaredy Cats Unite—Not Everyone Loves Being Afraid | Smart News | Smithsonian
Current Issue
September 2014  magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

Keeping you current

Scaredy Cats Unite—Not Everyone Loves Being Afraid

A big part of Halloween is getting scared, intentionally. Why in the world would anyone want that?

smithsonian.com

Image: mueredecine

Despite the stormpocalypse’s attempts to ruin Halloween for the Eastern seaboard, the holiday will march on and happen on Wednesday. Halloween is some people’s their favorite holiday, an excuse to dress up and watch spooky movies. But a big part of Halloween is getting scared, intentionally. Why in the world would anyone want that?

Turns out, we don’t actually like the fear part. We like the emotional release that comes right afterwards. Discovery explains:

“Fear is a negative emotion that comes about when people are under siege or threat, and that is not pleasant,” said Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication who studies the media’s effects on people at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

“After researching this as long as I have, I have not seen any empirical evidence that people actually enjoy the emotional experience of fright,” he added. “Instead, I see evidence that people are enjoying other things that go along with this experience.”

But if you’re a scaredy cat and can’t for the life of you figure out why anyone would intentionally be afraid, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in the majority. Only a third of people seek out fear. Another third actively avoid it, and the middle third could go either way.

Fear can mess up your brain more than you might think. The amygdala, where a lot of the fear emotion happens, can store that fear for a long time. But somehow this doesn’t deter people. Discovery again:

And yet, dedicated horror fans keep coming back for more. One reason is a phenomenon known as “excitation transfer.” When scared, the body undergoes spikes in heart rate, breathing rate and muscle tension, among other involuntary responses. And that kind of arousal is not necessarily pleasant.

But when the extreme sense of excitement wears off, it is replaced by an equally intense sense of relief, and those positive feelings are stronger than they would have been otherwise. A sense of mastery can also come from enduring a frightening situation and emerging triumphant.

Oh, and the whole “take a girl to a scary movie so she’ll feel afraid and you can protect her” bit? It might actually work. Or, at least, it did a few decades back. A 1986 study had pairs of teenagers to watch scary movies together. Half of the teenagers were given a script to stick to, while the other had no idea what was going on. If a girl acted scared, rather than being tough and saying the movie was lame, the boy was more attracted to her. Likewise, if the boy acted tough and unafraid, the girl was more likely to find him attractive than his scaredy cat friend.

So for those of us who hate being scared, and dread Halloween for both the spookiness and the social rejection, never fear. We’re not alone. And if you happen to be a lady, you’re likely to get more dates.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Wednesday Roundup: Phantoms, Costumes and Halloween Galore
How to be a Dinosaur for Halloween

Tags
About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

Read more from this author |

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus