Fear is one of the basest emotions possessed by humans (and living things in general, for that matter). It’s been around as long as we have, its main purpose to alert us to and keep us out of danger. And yet, though this certainly seems like a negative emotion, we can’t deny that a lot of us really love being scared. Skydiving and bungee jumping are fairly commonplace vacation thrills. We gladly watch movies that make us scream and cover our eyes. And we plan our autumns around spooktastic experiences like the best (and scariest) haunted houses in America. Why do we willingly put ourselves in situations that are guaranteed to terrify us?
Well, the answer is multifaceted because not exactly every person handles fear the same way. But science might just have something to help explain our need to be spooked. A study led by Vanderbilt University’s David Zald dove into how the brain handles fear and how certain people’s brains might be wired to enjoy it a bit more than others.
One chemical that can be released when entering into a scary situation is dopamine, the hormone responsible for triggering pleasure responses in the body. In the brain, “autoreceptors” are responsible for relaying to the body when it should cease production of these hormones in scary situations. People who enjoy thrills, Zald’s research posits, tend to have fewer autoreceptors, so their brain tends to freewheel more in its production of dopamine.
“Think of dopamine like gasoline,” Zald told National Geographic, “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.”
The other hormone which plays a key role in one’s enjoyment of a scary situation is adrenaline. Adrenaline is released when the body perceives itself to be in a dangerous situation and that, in turn, triggers the fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight response primes the body for risky situations by making it more responsive, aware, and dangerous.
However, when you’re, say, watching a horror movie, the brain is able to recognize that there is no need to stay in fight-or-flight mode. The perceived threat can’t actually reach through the screen and grab you, but the adrenal response has already been activated and you are able to enjoy the benefits of an adrenaline high without actually being chased by an ax murderer. “To really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we’re in a safe environment,” Dr. Margee Kerr, a staff sociologist at ScareHouse, a year-round haunted house, told the Atlantic. “It’s all about triggering the amazing fight-or-flight response to experience the flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, but in a completely safe space.”
In short, you’re tricking your brain that it’s about to get stabbed in a shower, or eaten by a shark, or…insert classic scary movie death here, and you reap the sweet, sweet chemical benefits. You can experience that scared-silly feeling with our choices for the scariest movies of all time.