Why Do People Like Getting Scared?

Whether it’s celebrating on the first day of Autumn, the entire month of October, or just today on Halloween, now’s not just the time for posting photos of changing leaf colors and apple picking, but for pumpkin carving, costumes, and yes, spooky activities. Everyone has different feelings about whether they like to get frightened or not, and all are completely justified. While some refuse to watch a show with just the slightest hint of a jump scare, others will jump at the opportunity to enter a pitch black maze, excited to see what the unknown has in store for them.

But why do some people like that feeling? Why do they like to be startled, and for the briefest of moments, feel unsafe and have their world shaken up? Margee Kerr, a sociologist at Pitt, explored this, explaining how voluntarily engaging in high arousal negative experiences (known as VANEs), like going on a roller coaster or watching a scare movie, can be positive. This is especially true when the activity comes across as dangerous, but is almost always in a safe environment.

For the study, the researchers went to ScareHouse (be warned, the website itself can be a little terrifying for some), advertised as Pittsburgh’s “scariest haunted house.” She not only talked with those who worked and designed the haunted house to see how it worked, but gave surveys to those who had already purchased tickets to get information about their feelings before and after. The majority of the participants, about half, said that their mood had improved, especially those who were tired or stressed. Some of the participants wore sensors and had less brain activity when completing tasks after, which was described as being similar to a “zen state,” the kind of calm feeling that happens during mediation, for example. It’s similar to ripping off a Band-Aid: one can be afraid of the pain before it happens, and once it does, it hurts for the briefest of seconds, but afterwards, they feel better and almost relaxed.

The article goes on to explain on how getting scared and the positive feelings that come afterwards are similar to the goals in exposure therapy, a kind of treatment for different types of mental illnesses where the person is shown the things they don’t like, but in a safe environment. This is done in order to reduce that fear. Kerr suggests that for those with social anxiety, for example, going to a haunted house with a ridiculous situation like a subway car full of zombies makes an everyday, packed subway, less terrifying.

This isn’t the only way to help anxiety, so if people don’t like getting scared, rest assured, it’s not the only solution. However, if they do, a scary movie playing in the background as they work on a daunting assignment may make it slightly less scary.

Happy Halloween! 

Do you think that getting scared and frightened can help with anxiety? Would you let your child participate in these activities if it would help them?

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