Lifestyle

Psychologists: Why We Like to Be Scared

As Halloween approaches, the goons, goblins and ghosts have popped up just about everywhere as local residents and those around the country have begun to immerse themselves into everything that’s fear related.

Movies — even those that have been on the shelf for decades such as “The Exorcist,” “The Shining” and “The Blair Witch Project” — are consumed around the clock and haunted house tours sell out quickly.

It all leads to the question: why do Americans like to be scared?

“Humans have had a love-hate relationship with their fear responses for thousands of years,” said Dr. W. Jesse Gill, a licensed clinical psychologist with Psychological Health Affiliates, an organization of psychologists and therapists who are devoted to helping people resolve psychological problems through a variety of services.

“When we talk about fear, we are really referring to the human fight-or-flight response,” Gill said. “In moments of danger, our whole nervous system and physiology spring into action in a fraction of a second. Through the fight-or-flight response, major muscle groups are empowered, breathing takes on an action-oriented pattern, while our bodies are cooled and made lightweight for action.”

For those who like to be frightened, particularly in settings like a haunted house, “it provides a diversion from an individual’s typical and decidedly less-exciting day-to-day life,” said Dr. Lou Manza, a professor and chair of Psychology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania.

“There’s a deep literature in psychology that gets into the need for people to have something in life that they enjoy, something that they pursue in their leisure time,” Manza said. “Without these, life can get a bit boring, depressing. What each person chooses, however, is dictated by personal preferences and, for some, being scared fills this role.”

In her 2015 book, “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear,” self-proclaimed fear junkie Margee Kerr confronts roller coasters, haunted houses, heights, abandoned prisons, ghosts and even death “with the relentlessness of a zombie Terminator,” according to a published review.

The reviewer noted that Kerr’s love affair with fear began early. A ride on the Comet, Hershey Park’s oldest roller coaster at age 11, and an encounter with a faux corpse at a Scottish highland fair in Maryland, and she was hooked.

“I was even yelled at by my sixth grade teacher for bringing in a book on witchcraft that had a drawing of a naked woman inside,” Kerr said. “[The teacher said], ‘That’s inappropriate, Margee,'” Kerr said.

In “Scream,” Kerr is untroubled by such niceties as she travels the world in search of greater and greater fears. The author climbs aboard the steepest roller coaster in the world, the Takabisha at Fuji-Q Highland amusement park in Japan. The 3,300-foot, two-minute ride features a 121-degree loop in which the track, 141 feet above ground, curves back against itself.

“As the car inched forward over the peak,” Kerr writes, “my legs started shaking uncontrollably, and I kept repeating ‘Oh my God.’ … Finally, the car tipped over the apex and dove toward the ground. I started screaming louder than I ever have before, as tears streamed down my face.”

The concept of hedonic consumption refers to consumers’ desire to consume experiences that generate emotions and many individuals enjoy the pleasure of experiencing such emotions, said Dr. Vassilis Dalakas, a professor of marketing at Cal State San Marcos University.

“There is not much of a practical functional benefit but the focus is instead on the emotional arousal,” Dalakas said. “What’s interesting is that, in this case, pleasure is derived not just by positive emotions, like joy, but also by negative emotions, like sadness or fear.”

For example, Dalakas noted, tear-jerkers or horror movies excite many people because of the sadness and horror they evoke, not despite it.

“So, this is the part of what causes the desire to consume scary experiences. Being scared is part of what makes an experience fun,” Dalakas said. “However, it is different from experiencing fear in regularly daily life. In hedonic consumption, the consumer enjoys being scared because he or she chose to engage in an activity that would elicit it. In real like, fear is normally elicited by unexpected factors — like getting mugged — and was not intentionally pursued by the individual.”

When asked what action to take with young children who want to take fear to an extreme, Manza said it all depends on the individual.

“It [also] depends on what you mean by extreme,” Manza said. “Inducing fright by jumping in front of a car wouldn’t be good. Watching a horror film in the comfort of your home, though is clearly not as life-threatening. I’d say for anyone who can’t handle it, simply don’t put yourself in the situation to start with.”

Gill said many young ones enjoy being gently tossed up in the air by a caring adult, to feel the thrill of fight or flight, and the immediate resolution of being comforted and held fast.

He said Halloween is the one time of the year when people face their fight or flight responses, and in particular their fear of mortality.

“Kids who take an extreme approach to Halloween, are sometimes acting out other themes in their lives,” Gill said. “Kids who don’t get enough healthy attention may be particularly sensation-seeking in this time of the year.

“Some kids may be relying more on the ‘fight’ side of their fight-or-flight response to gain a sense of empowerment, and this can be destructive,” Gill said. “We don’t need to be aggressive to feel safe on the planet, but some children have not received that kind of message or experience basis to draw from.”

It’s important that parents coach their children that Halloween is a time for fun, and even a time to face some of their fears without doing it at the expense of others, Gill said.

Also, some children have clinically significant anxiety struggles and they may need the help of a child psychologist our counselor, who has specific training in helping kids face their fears and overcome them, he said.

“Adults are much the same as they face their fears throughout the year,” Gill said. “Adults need solace and to know that they are not alone in this life journey. Adults can reach out to support groups or counseling when they feel afraid.”

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Stacy M. Brown

I’ve worked for the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times, Gannet and the Times-Tribune and have contributed to the Pocono Record, the New York Post and the New York Times. Television news opportunities have included: NBC, MSNBC, Scarborough Country, the Abrams Report, Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Imus in the Morning and Anderson Cooper 360. Radio programs like the Wendy Williams Experience, Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Howard Stern Show have also provided me the chance to share my views.

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