The Science of Scares

Ian LaMarsh|Staff Artist

Every year around Halloween, millions of people participate in activities that celebrate spooky and eerie aspects with one thought in mind: to be completely and totally terrified.

During this time of the year, people celebrate what they’re supposed to fear. Trips to haunted houses and theaters for horror-movie marathons fill the weekends leading up to Oct. 31. People dress up as monsters and their fears. But the question remains: Why does Western culture choose to dedicate an entire month to blood, guts and things that go bump in the night?

“It’s functioning on a certain psychological level where you can enjoy the build-up, but when you get inside, you have that release where instead of it being truly horrifying … you’re like, “This isn’t so bad after all; this is really safe,’ and so it gives you both of those experiences: both the buildup but also the feeling of safety,” said Peter Ingrao, clinical assistant professor in the School of Arts and Humanities.


Horror Films


Ingrao, who utilizes movies involving zombies and monsters in his Exploration of the Humanities course, said there are a variety of reasons we enjoy scary movies. He said zombies, especially, can be used to parallel social anxieties in society and will continue to evolve and grow to fit people’s changing fears and anxieties. In order for zombies to fade away, Ingrao said, there would need to be a disease-free planet and stable economies across the world.

Kenneth Brewer, a clinical assistant professor who also teaches Exploration of the Humanities, said what makes zombies unique is that years after their introduction, people still find movies with the undead scary.

“We think what’s scary relates to our anxieties at the time, and so we’re not scared of what people in 1930 were scared of anymore. That’s why Frankenstein doesn’t scare us, but zombie movies from the 60s are still scary,” he said. “Zombies have hung on as things that are still scary to people.”

Brewer, who teaches his section with an emphasis on horror movies, said asking the research question of why horror movies are able to scare people is what got him back into horror movies. He said viewers know implicitly the movie isn’t real, the actors and special effects are also not real, but they still manage to be frightened by horror movies not just when we watch them on giant screens in theaters, but also on tiny screens at home and on our phones.

There are currently three major theories regarding why people seek out situations where they are fearful: the compensatory theory, catharsis theory and enjoyment theory, Brewer said.

The compensatory theory states that people do things they fear or are disgusted by because, in the end, human are intellectually satisfied.

“No one chooses to be scared; no one chooses to be disgusted under normal conditions,” Brewer said. “The reason we like these things is because there’s something else that compensates it, something else that outweighs it. For most people who argue this, what we get at is something educational.”

He said the theory has several iterations. One iteration updated by evolutionary psychologists says human beings are training themselves to deal with fear. It is a way for people to do things that are not socially acceptable such as yelling. People can scream in fear at a horror movie, but they cannot scream in fear in daily life.

The catharsis theory goes back to Aristotle and the Ancient Greeks. It states that it is pleasurable for people to relieve themselves of negative emotions. At the end of the movie, Brewer said, the viewer feels better about the situation — even if the monster is not killed. The movie is over, and the person is no longer scared. The viewers have just relieved emotions of fear and let off steam.

The enjoyment theory is one of the most popular theories regarding why people enjoy scary situations. While the first two theories view the thrill as a paradox, this theory states that people like being scared or disgusted in controlled situations.

“There is something about it on the chemical level,” Ingrao said. “The thrill itself of being frightened is something we want to experience as long as it can take place in somewhat of a safe format. I can go to a horror film and want to be scared. That does not mean I want to be mugged on the street, which would also make me very afraid.”

Neuroscientists generally support the third theory, Brewer said. But he said there is a lot of interest in the neuroscientific community regarding people’s perception of fear in films. Again, people know that it’s just acting and the supernatural is depicted using special effects, but they’re still scared. The brain is tricked by movie magic.

Brewer and Ingrao both said the golden age for horror movies occurred after Sept. 11, 2001.

“After 9/11, one of the things Hollywood said is no one wants to see horror movies and so we’re not going to make horror movies. It turns out to be since then, it’s turned out to be this kind of golden age of horror movies,” Brewer said.

After Sept. 11 was the time when national security really became an issue in people’s minds, Ingrao said.

“For example, the idea of the terrorist and that the terrorist can be anyone,” he said. “You know, if you’re dealing with other monsters, it’s pretty clear who Frankenstein’s creature is … (but) the idea with the zombie is that anyone could possibly be a zombie and anyone could possibly carry the infection. If you get bitten you become a zombie, so you know it’s really dealing with notions of that destabilization of the self terms of the issues of both personal and national security.”


Haunted Houses


Monster movies and zombie flicks are one way for people to entertain their fears, but to get a personal dose of terror, people visit haunted houses, a popular attraction during Halloween season. The Dallas-Fort Worth area has several haunted houses people frequent to get a thrilling scare such as Fort Worth’s Hangman’s House of Horrors.

One reason people enjoy haunted houses, Ingrao said, is to debunk rumors of haunted areas — also known as legend tripping.

“A group of you and your friends go to a haunted house or you and a group of friends go out to an old abandoned house in the field…,” he said. “There’s something intrinsic in that of a certain rite of passage where it becomes such a cultural repetition that even though there’s that warning of, ‘Oh, don’t go out there and do that,’ You still go out there, and you do it and everything turns out to be OK which is the same experience with a haunted house.”

Darla Robinson, a 26-year volunteer at Hangman’s House of Horrors in Fort Worth, said when it comes to haunted houses, the people involved in making them happen strive to make it scary and enjoyable.

“It’s an adrenaline rush to get scared,” she said. “You giggle right afterwards. There are so many ways to scare people. Obviously you want to plan things so every sense — eyes, ears — is being stimulated. The best stimulated are the eyes and the ears — to have a loud bang behind you is always best.”

The scare tactics begin in line to buy tickets where the anticipation is already building, she said. A good haunted house provides a consistent adrenaline rush throughout the experience.

She said with Hangman’s in particular, the volunteer actors try to interact with patrons as much as possible because they’ve noticed it makes a difference when the scary characters are scaring people the whole way through the room.

“We can’t touch you; you can’t touch us,” she said. “But it’s the ‘what if?’”

Haunted houses also use disorientation to throw off people’s senses, Robinson said. This can involve modified stairways, hallways or even strobe lighting in a room.

Another way haunted houses use sensory manipulation is by utilizing pitch blackness. Hangman’s has a weekend where groups will go into the haunted house armed with one glow stick for the group.

“You take away their sight, and no matter what you do, even with the lights on, there’s fog. But you totally turn off the lights, and that’s a totally different ballgame,” Robinson said.

Other haunted houses also utilize rooms or hallways of pitch blackness to add to the scare.


Neuroscience of pain and fear


Fear and pain go hand in hand when it comes to what is spooky. Many times people fear because they are scared it will cause them pain. People know the creepy guy in the shadows with the chainsaw at a haunted house can’t actually hurt them, but when the loud rumbling of the machine starts, people run because they’re afraid of the pain they would feel if the chainsaw were real and it caught up to them.

“I would say for two reasons we feel pain,” said Aage Moller, a neuroscience professor who focuses on the science of pain. “One, it can be a warning against illness or it can be a warning against trauma or things like that … the other reason we have pain is some change in the function of the brain has occurred.”

Fear is how humans protect themselves, Moller said. If people are fearful, people don’t expose themselves to the risks involved with the threatening stimuli. Pain is beneficial to human beings, he said. People born with the genetic inability to feel pain often die at a younger age.

“They end up injuring themselves fatally by doing something other people might be afraid to do because of the pain that it would cause,” said Greg Dussor, an associate professor in neuroscience and a member of the pain neurobiology research group. “Doing some kind of acrobatic maneuver off the roof of your house — probably not something you or I would do because if that doesn’t end well, it’s not going to be fun. But I know that because I’ve felt pain before, as have you. If we’ve never felt it before, we’re not so averse to doing that.”

It is advantageous to be fearful, Moller said, but fear can also be overdone. And while pain is beneficial and even protective, the emotional component of pain is aversive. People try to avoid situations that are potentially painful.

“There is a lot of overlap between the pain circuitry and anxiety or the fear circuitry,” Dussor said. “And memory as well, so one of the important things about learning from an experience where you have pain is not doing it again, so the circuitry that is processing pain in the brain has to ultimately feed into the memory circuitry so you don’t go touch that hot stove a second time or a third time or a fourth time. It’s also going to feed into the emotional circuitry of anxiety and fear so that you have a natural, healthy fear response when you get near something hot.”

The connection between pain, fear and pleasure on a neuroscientific level makes sense because of the biochemical processes in the body.

“You have an endogenous opioid system that you know is present within your body,” Dussor said. “Everybody does, and it’s capable of releasing hormones that do the same kind of thing that would happen to you if you took a morphine tablet or capsule or heroin or any external opiate. They produce a rewarding, pleasurable response when you take them. That’s part of the reason they’re so addictive. Your body has the capability of doing that exact same thing, and it will if you give it a reason to do that.”

He said evolutionarily, the body has evolved in a way where if a person is threatened, the body’s No. 1 priority is to get away from the threat. If an organism does not get away from the predator causing it pain, the pain doesn’t matter because it’s dead.

Even though people know logically that they are safe, the stress response isn’t turned off, so the body releases the endogenous opioids.

“The release of those endogenous opioids that make you feel as though you took heroin — they’re basically manipulating the same system — that’s the sort of high people will get off of things that are threatening or stressful,” he said. “It’s just simply because you’re forcing the body to turn on its endogenous pain control system, which it will do, and at the same time give you a pleasurable response.”

Some people do not enjoy the adrenaline rush, much like some people do not enjoy the feelings they get when they take an external opiate. Not everyone becomes addicted to opiates, Moller said, much like not everyone becomes addicted to sky diving or base jumping.

“So people who are chronic sky divers, would they be more likely to be addicted to opioids if they were to try them? I think the answer is yes because I think you get pleasure out of that reward system,” Dussor said. “Whether you get it from sky diving or from consuming an opiate, an injection, a tablet or however you get it, I think there’s a parallel between those two things.”

He said that doesn’t mean people who enjoy sky diving are drug addicts. It just means a lot of the same pathways are at work.

Another reason people may enjoy participating in thrilling activities, Dussor said, is that it is rewarding when the pain or fear goes away.

Much like when a person gets an eyelash stuck in the eye and will try to do everything to make the pain go away quickly, when a person immediately stops a painful situation, the body rewards and reinforces.

“People (put) themselves in a situation that might cause them pain because they know it’s going to feel good when they take it away,” Dussor said. “If you manipulate (the painful or fearful situation), you can control when it goes on and when it goes off. And so it’s not exactly like skydiving or thrill seeking, but another way in which pain and reward kind of play off each other, and you can manipulate that to get some sort of pleasurable response.”

The biological processes that are involved in pain and fear explain a significant portion of human reactions to scary situations. Regardless of how scared it makes people, they still seek out these chills and thrills to celebrate what they are supposed to fear.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *