Spine-tingling chills, heart palpitations and blood-curdling screams. Are these the ingredients for what you consider a good time? Did you ever wonder why you prefer a night with Freddy Krueger over a night with Channing Tatum? Scientists say that it is not just a matter of personality, but of brain chemistry.
Our "fight or flight" response has always been an important part of human survival, but some of us experience real joy from scary situations.
Are you a Thrill Seeker?
Dr. Margee Kerr, a scare specialist who is a staff sociologist at ScareHouse, a haunted house in Pittsburgh, and who also teaches at Robert Morris University and Chatham University, told Atlantic.com, "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. First, the natural high from the fight or flight response can feel great. There is strong evidence that this isn't just about personal choice, but our brain chemistry."
"New research from David Zald shows that people differ in their chemical response to thrilling situations. One of the main hormones released during scary and thrilling activities is dopamine, and it turns out some individuals may get more of a kick from this dopamine response than others do. Basically, some people's brains lack what Zald describes as "brakes" on the dopamine release and re-uptake in the brain. This means some people are going to really enjoy thrilling, scary, and risky situations while others, not so much," she added.
Other research backs up Kerr and Zald. In a 2007 a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that horror lovers actually feel happiness while watching scary movies.
"In the real world, people simultaneously can experience both happiness and sadness, exhilaration and anxiety," study author Joel Cohen, a professor of marketing and anthropology at the University of Florida, told LiveScience. Apparently excitement can come from a negative source as well as a positive one.
For Dr. Kerr, the sense of self-confidence a person feels for surviving a scary situation may also play a role in their feeling of enjoyment. "Think about the last time you made it through a scary movie or through a haunted house. You might have thought, 'Yes! I did it! I made it all the way through!' So it can be a real self-esteem boost."
What is the difference in our reaction to real versus pretend danger?
The key to enjoying a scary situation it seems is knowing that it is all pretend. "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. Haunted houses are great at this – they deliver a startle scare by triggering one of our senses with different sounds, air blasts, and even smells. These senses are directly tied to our fear response and activate the physical reaction, but our brain has time to process the fact that these are not 'real' threats," said Dr. Kerr.
"I've seen the process thousands of times from behind the walls in ScareHouse – someone screams and jumps and then immediately starts laughing and smiling," she added
Does fear bring us closer together?
It has often been wondered if people who endure a scary situation together will be more drawn to each other. Dr. Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication at Purdue University seems to think so. He says that it is the intensity of relief after a good scare called the excitation transfer that attracts them to each other.
He told PsychCentral that "it's the culmination of a heightened heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration process that lingers after a movie, making other experiences, such as hanging out with friends, just as intensified."
Maybe that is why watching scary movies is a popular date night for some couples.
Do you have a dark side?
Ever just feel like your love of slasher films and ghost stories comes from having a macabre personality? "There's a long history of people being intensely curious about the 'dark side,' and trying to make sense of it," says Frank Farley, PhD, psychologist at Temple University. "Through movies, we're able to see horror in front of our eyes, and some people are extremely fascinated by it. They're interested in the unusual and the bizarre because they don't understand it and it's so different from our everyday lives."