As Jem of Jem and the Holograms once said, "it's fun to be scared." Around this time of year, we seek out frightening situations, like ghost tours and haunted house attractions, but horror movies have a loyal viewership year-round and we're always suckers for a good paranormal story. But, being scared isn't always fun, say, when you hear something outside your window in the dead of night. Why do we have a blast on a haunted hayride but dread going down to the basement after dark?
Rebecca Berry, PhD, clinical psychologist at NYU Langone’s Child Study Center, tells Refinery29 that, first and foremost, getting scared and enjoying it is a matter of control. For example, your love of horror movies is partly due to the fact that you understand you're in a safe environment. Even as you watch Pennywise prey upon innocent children, you're confident that you are not in danger. But, when something offscreen gives you the willies, you're probably much less certain that you'll come out unscathed. "This lack of control can be quite distressing," Dr. Berry says.
Feeling like you're in control can set the scene for a frighteningly good time, but there's more to the joy of being scared than the context. We also have our brains to thank.
When something scares us (even if it's in a movie), our brain interprets that thing as a threat, which sets off a series of chemical reactions we know as our fight or flight instinct. First, Dr. Berry explains, we freeze or involuntarily jump. Then, our heart rate and breathing increase as blood rushes to our muscles — we're ready to respond to any danger that approaches. All of this happens in an instant, and the realization that the threat isn't real occurs just as rapidly. So, we're left feeling this rush of energizing hormones (including adrenaline) with nothing negative to respond to.
Simply put, Dr. Berry says, this sensation can feel really good. Our physiological response ends up getting interpreted as other "high arousal responses," which include happiness and joy. We may feel more physically aware (especially if we're watching the movie while cuddling with a partner), more euphoric, or just really relieved. "That’s why you see horror movie-goers transition from screaming to laughing in almost an instant," she says.
Of course, if you understand that horror movies aren't real, and that fear is a natural response, and you still don't like going out of your way to get scared, you're not alone. Some of us can't even handle the first 15 minutes of the move Joker. Aside from desiring the "high" that accompanies a startle, Dr. Berry says horror fans may have a certain level of "morbid curiosity" that others don't.
Whether you're spending the month of October chasing thrills and chills or enjoying the lighter side of this spooky month, just remember, there's nothing to fear about being afraid.