The Psychology of Fear – why do we love being scared?
25 July 2017
Are you a thrill seeker? Do you actually like that feeling when your heart is in your mouth? Did you spend your childhood hiding behind the sofa during Dr Who, telling ghost stories at sleep-overs, jumping off cliffs or scaring yourself witless with an Ouija board? Even as really young children it seems we seek out fear – but why? Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear explains “We’ve done this to build group unity, to prepare kids for life in the scary world, and, of course, to control behaviour.”
Fear is also vital for our survival. As Dean Burnett wrote in the Guardian, it’s an evolutionary response to make us wary of or able to avoid danger – and the fact we’re still here shows it works! Being frightened triggers the fight or flight response which is incredibly stimulating so scary things make everything else more vivid – we feel more alive and in the moment. The Washington Post reported that when our bodies are primed for danger we achieve a weird kind of high. Fear gives us a rush of hormones that make us faster and stronger, and any of our early ancestors who lacked that response didn’t survive to pass on their genes to future generations.
There’s another element to fear – it’s massively cathartic. According to Dean Burnett “We all have these dark impulses or ‘forbidden thinking’, and having some form of outlet for this is a good thing. People regularly wonder about stealing, attacking, cheating, and worse. Perhaps by indulging in horror we’re less likely to act on these impulses.” The subject of our fears also changes through the decades. Cultural historian David Skal argues that horror films are simply reflections of our societal fears. “Looking at the history of horror you have mutant monsters rising in the ‘50s from our fear of the nuclear bogeyman, Zombies in the ‘60s with Vietnam, Nightmare on Elm Street as mistrust in authority figures stemming from the Watergate scandals and Zombies again in the 2000’s as a reflection of viral pandemic fears.”
But not everyone gets the same enjoyment from being scared – and there’s a scientific reason for this. David H Zald led a study for Vanderbilt University and found that when it comes to fear, people’s brains work differently. When we’re frightened, the body releases a hormone called dopamine (as well as adrenaline,) that’s also associated with pleasure – a kind of neurological ‘reward’. When hormones flood our brains, molecules called auto receptors that sit on our nerve cells keep track of the abundance of the chemicals and tell our bodies when to slow down their production. Those of us with fewer auto receptors are more likely to seek out thrilling situations, possibly because they get more dopamine out of a scary situation than other people do. “Think of dopamine like gasoline,” Zald told National Geographic in 2013. “You combine that with a brain equipped with a lesser ability to put on the brakes than normal, and you get people who push limits.” This explains why some people are real thrill seekers – the adrenalin/dopamine combination is so addictive that they physically put themselves into real danger or take greater risks by engaging in extreme sports etc.
No matter what level of thrill you’re after, why not indulge yourself in a little terror, courtesy of Madame Tussauds? Alien : Escape is described as a multi-sensory fright-fest (not for the faint-hearted!) and is set to terrify willing guests this summer. Could that be you? Join us on 25th August or 1st September as Alien: Escape headlines Madame Tussauds After Dark