Gratification can be found in many places. There are the standard, par for the course sources of gratification, like getting a promotion at work, figuring out a particularly difficult riddle created by Albert Einstein, or hitting a grand slam in your company’s softball league. But then there’s the inexplicable, the things that we gravitate to for seemingly no good reason, whether it’s a perfect knuckle crack or getting your pants scared off while watching a horror movie. (Did you know there’s actually a long history behind ghosts in those movies saying ‘boo?’ Believe it.)
Although science does not offer explanations for all your quirks, it might just have something for the need to be spooked. The answer is multifaceted because not exactly every person handles fear the same way. A study led by Vanderbilt University’s David Zald dove into the 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. (Did you know that it’s possible to be scared to death? Adrenaline plays a key role in this spooky demise.) 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 axe 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 [insert scary movie scene here], and reaping the sweet sweet chemical benefits. But that still doesn’t quite explain why you’re deathly afraid of your kindly neighborhood clown—this is the reason for that.