They knew what they were in for. Terrifying creatures stalked the stalks, just waiting to leap from the darkness into the flashlight beams of those who braved the haunted corn maze at Fantozzi Farms in Patterson. Still, they came, and the reactions to the chilling encounters were almost invariable: shrieks, tightly gripped arms, then relief, shared smiles and laughter.
What is it about getting the wits scared out of you that inspires revelers to plunk down as much as $40 at haunted houses, or to willingly submit to watching chain saw-wielding madmen in horror movies, or even to embrace the more active, tangible fear of sky diving?
Is it merely for an adrenal rush, a yen for that squirt of hormones that produces a heady sense of heightened awareness and euphoria? Or perhaps a relic of the evolutionary trigger that allowed our ancestors to escape a rampaging puma on the savannah and now allows us to slam on the brakes to avoid being sideswiped on the freeway?
Whatever the motivation, courting fear can be a good thing – actually healthy for a body in the short term, doctors and psychologists say.
Dr. Peter Yellowlees, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis, ticks off the instantaneous physiological changes a body goes through in a fear state: “You tend to sweat more, your breathing rate increases, you look red, you may have tingling in your arms, legs and cheeks, and more blood goes to your muscles.” While it might strike some as a recipe for a stroke, it in fact shows that one’s sympathetic nervous system is functioning as needed.
“Fear is a very good thing,” Yellowlees said. “We all need it to survive.”
Not just to outrun predators, either. Dr. Rob Dobrenski, psychologist and author of “Crazy: Notes On and Off the Couch,” believes that embracing fear in an inherently safe setting such as a haunted-house attraction can be therapeutic. “I tell everyone that you’re basically hard-wired to want to experience all the emotions in the human spectrum,” Dobrenski said. “It’s the same reason that people, when they get depressed, listen to sad music. There’s something therapeutic going farther into the abyss. It creates a nice little cocktail of emotions, positive and negative. Even though you feel scared or sad, if you experience the pleasure part of it, the negative part is more cerebral.”
Good fear – and bad
Where fear gets its bad rap, where it leads to a cadre of health and psychological problems, is prolonged release of fear-induced cortisol in everyday stressful situations. So, in short: Screaming at a zombie reaching for you is a healthy response; stewing when your boss criticizes your latest sales report is inherently unhealthy.
“That’s the pathology of fear,” said Dr. David Bibas, of the California Science Center, which has developed a touring exhibition called “Goose Bumps: The Science of Fear,” to educate people about the benefits and drawbacks of the primitive emotion. “When the system goes out of whack in the sense that it’s responding but the situation doesn’t call for it, it can become a disorder like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and anxiety. There’s no physical reason for it, and that’s bad because you get unnecessary stress hormones that harm your body.”
The thing is, the body often does not know the difference between real and imagined fear. It simply responds to stimulus. The latest research suggests that, before we are even conscious we’re in a fearful situation, the sympathetic nervous system and endocrine systems are activated. When the brain’s sensory cortexes detect fear, signals are sent to the amygdala, a nut-size nucleus in the temporal lobe responsible for sifting through our emotions for threat evaluation.
The amygdala fashions its response from signals it gets from vision (a psychopath wielding a chainsaw), or hearing (a demented clown cackling) or feeling (someone grabbing you from behind) and sends messages to the hypothalamus and brain stem for action. Only then is the message sent to the prefrontal cortex for further threat evaluation.
All this happens, doctors say, pretty much instantaneously. “There’s an old saying,” Bibas said, “that it’s better to mistake a stick for a snake than a snake for a stick. The amygdala gives an immediate reaction – we’re talking fractions of a second. If the danger doesn’t turn out to be real, then the system stands down.”
Jeff Wise’s book, “Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger,” in part studies why some people are drawn to high-risk, fear-inducing activities as well as brief flirtations with fear such as haunted houses.
“Scientists don’t really know what makes thrill-seeking seem addictive,” Wise said. “Adrenaline itself doesn’t produce euphoria. One idea is that after the acute stress of a sky dive or scary movie, the body swings into a compensatory mode called ‘parasympathetic rebound,’ essentially a kind of super-relaxation. People report feeling euphoria, heightened sensory awareness, and a preternatural sense of calm – all very rewarding sensations that people would want to achieve again. The exact neural mechanisms are so far unclear.”
Even the anticipation of being scared seems trigger enough to set the bodily reactions into motion. In 2008, a Michigan cardiologist took blood pressure and heart-rate measurements of people waiting in line at a haunted house in Detroit. Everyone in line, even young people, registered as hypertensive, cardiologist Dr. Nathan Foster told Wise on his blog, jeffwise.net. After going through the haunted house, Foster found that the participants’ heart rates went from about 60 beats per minute beforehand to 160 beats immediately afterward.
Can Fear Be Regulated?
Some haunted-house aficionados, however, say they can consciously mitigate Halloween-like fears.
“Whenever I do feel scared,” said Maria Ramos of Sacramento, “I just remind myself that it’s completely made up. It helps especially when it’s done so well that it almost does feel real.”
Ramos, however, admits that, in the moment, she succumbs to her more primitive responses. “I’ll still cringe at every corner,” she said. “... I get anxious, not the ‘I’m-going-to-pass-out’ anxious but the edge-of-your-seat feeling. I get a slight adrenaline rush when I do react. I spook easily, so I’ll jump at anything that jumps at me.”
Others, such as Erin Alvarez on Woodland, try to stay rational while in a spooky milieu, but fail. “You kind of get in a mind-set when you’re in there that there’s no way out and you really do feel scared. It tends to become real, consciously, for me.”
University of Santa Clara professor John Morreall, in an article titled “Enjoying negative emotions in fiction” in the journal Philosophy and Literature, says that in order for people to enjoy fear, they must have a sense of being in control. In other words, they are able to step out of the haunted house safely, or pause the horror flick on their TV.
“Intense fear – terror – is not enjoyable because in such a state, we lose control over our attention, our bodies and our total situation,” he writes. “We can no longer even flee ... instead we freeze in our tracks, are ‘petrified’ or we go limp, perhaps even faint. Objectless fear, or general anxiety, is also not enjoyable because, not knowing its source, we feel unable to control it.”
But controllable fear?
“Especially for someone who leads a relatively dull life,” he wrote, “the stimulation provided by fear can be pleasurable by contrast with the ordinary lack of stimulation.”
Do you love to hit the creepy corn mazes and haunted houses come Halloweentime? If so, why? Join the conversation at facebook.com/modestobee.