Chocolate, flowers, a long bath— that’s what makes many people feel better. For others, though, it’s the opposite of what you’d expect. Some people (you probably know at least a few) like to be scared. Scary movies like It or Us are right up their alley. And instead of stressing them out, being scared reassures them. It’s a brain thing, and sociologist and “scare specialist”, Dr. Margee Kerr, has spent more than ten years figuring out why some brains react that way. She wouldn’t settle for the answer, “Because I like it. It’s fun!” and neither should you. Here’s the deal on why brains enjoy cinematic terror, haunted houses and even risky adventures:
A Rare Study Involving A Haunted Attraction
To scare up some answers for their study published in APA PscyNET in October 2018, Kerr and a University of Pittsburgh cognitive neuroscientist colleague, Greg Siegle, went to the source. The two set up a mobile lab in the basement of ScareHouse, an extreme haunted attraction in Pittsburgh. This was not one of those easy-going places where costumed characters jump out and say, “Boo!” and a little scary music plays in the background. Just a few of its terrifying tactics include restraining the guests and exposing them to electricity. This place draws the type of people who say “I love a horror house!” and mean it, so the researchers already had a pre-screened group of 262 who were voluntarily paying to get scared.
To figure out what made these people enjoy the manufactured fear, the researchers gave them a survey at the start and finish of the gig. They also used mobile EEG to measure 100 participants’ brainwaves as they completed a few brief cognition activities before and after.
This Is Your Brain After Voluntary Scares
Kerr herself is a scary stuff junkie. “Not everyone enjoys being afraid, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that no one wants to experience a truly life-threatening situation. But there are those of us (well, a lot of us) who really enjoy the experience,” she told the Atlantic. She may not have been as surprised as the general public when people exiting the extreme haunted attraction reported that they were in a much better mood and had left anxieties behind. And the subjects who rated the encounter highest on the scare-o-meter were the most likely to feel happy when they finished it, even going so far as to say they’d faced personal fears and gotten to know themselves better.
The brain activity measurements helped the researchers establish that this sequence of emotions may rely on the brain “shutting down” in reaction to super intense, even terrifying activities. They were careful to note that these reactions only held true for controlled environments, where people presumably still knew it wasn’t “real.” And just as important, all the subjects had bought tickets and were looking forward to the scary experience. The same results would not happen with involuntary terror.
Will This Be Helpful For Mental Health?
Kerr probably wouldn’t like to spend the rest of her scientific career working from extreme horror houses. But that won’t be necessary, because this research has another goal in mind. According to the researchers, understanding this type of brain activity could help allow clinicians to use similar principles to decrease patients’ neural reactivity in a way that assists them with coping with subsequent stressors. And if all that gets hashed out, maybe these scare specialists can turn their attention to other important scary movie issues. One suggestion: Could scientists please tell us why viewers always shout, “Don’t go in there!” even though the foolish movie hero is going to do it every time.