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Be afraid, very afraid

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With Halloween approaching, UD experts explain why experiencing fear does a body good

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​Spooky season is upon us, which is bad news for people who collapse into the fetal position at the mere thought of nightmares on Elm Street. But should we think twice before fearing, well, fear? University of Delaware professors have all the reasons to #creepitreal this Halloween. ​

It is the end of October, which means otherwise normal-seeming people are preparing to invite ghoulish goblins and hex-casting witches to the front stoop. Friends and neighbors are queuing up slasher films on Netflix, decorating porches with animatronic skeletons and enduring hayrides where escaped convicts wield blood-spattered chainsaws. Some are snacking on eyeballs.

So… what gives? Why do so many healthy, well-adjusted humans willingly subject themselves to these nightmarish pastimes? Why — despite common sense and a wellness industrial complex practically begging us to relax — do we choose terror?​

“It makes us feel more alive,” said Jeffrey Rosen, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Delaware who studies the human fear response.​

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Jeffrey Rosen

​Whether a person can stomach the shower scene in "Psycho" or the brutal murder of Casey Becker in "Scream," is “not a nature-versus-nurture thing,” said Prof. Jeffrey Rosen, who studies the neurobiology of fear. “It is the interaction of the two.” ​

The experts explain it this way: When our caveman and cavewoman ancestors perceived a threat, like a saber-toothed tiger on the hunt, they had two choices: flee or fight. For either option, they needed to channel their strongest and most agile selves. So, their bodies went into superhero mode: Thanks to a rush of adrenaline, lung capacity increased, pupils dilated to boost sight and the ability to feel pain dulled.

This is the same stress response that comes into play when you watch Michael Myers stalk the childhood home of Laurie Strode on a big-screen TV. But there is one key difference: Unlike with the saber-toothed tigers our ancestors faced, scary movies and haunted houses are not real threats, and the brain knows it — even if the body does not. Put another way, the contrived dangers of Halloween allow a person to experience that primal, invigorating superhero mode, without the inconvenient possibility of actually being ripped to shreds.

But … still. Is the promise of a little adrenaline really what drives people to interact with scary clowns or sit through all nine — nine! — Freddy Krueger movies?

According to Jeffrey Spielberg, UD assistant professor of clinical science, one theory as to why some people so enjoy benign horror is that feelings of intense arousal are undifferentiated. This means the physiology behind, say, happy excitement is not all that different from the physiology behind fear — it is largely how we think about a particular arousal that makes it positive or negative. Another theory posits that a little bit of fake horror makes coping with our own vulnerability just a tad easier.​

“There are lots of things in the world we are scared of that we can’t control,” said Spielberg, director of the Connectomics of Anxiety and Depression Lab at UD. “Whereas, in a haunted house, you know that it’s not real, so you can experience danger while feeling like you have that control.”​

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Jeffrey Spielberg

​If it seems like teenagers have a particular inclination toward scary movies and haunted houses, there might be a developmental reason for that, said Prof. Jeffrey Spielberg: Scary activities allow young adults to experience (and learn how to process) an extreme emotional reaction in a safe way, which is “part of the job of adolescence.” ​

But fear does not just feel good… it may also do a body good. Trying to lose weight? Studies show sitting through a scary movie burns fat and lessens appetiteThe Shining torches 184 calories. Meanwhile, immersing yourself in a Stephen King or Rachel Harrison novel offers an immune boost, according to English researchers. And, for the single set, ramping up the fear factor might provide a little help when searching for love. When you are afraid, the brain releases a chemical called phenylethyl-amine, which is responsible for euphoria and other warm-and-fuzzy feelings. Take a date inside a haunted corn maze or spooky attraction, and the two of you might just translate that positive arousal to one another.

During a year that has generated so much anxiety about an uncertain future, the most compelling reason for welcoming some (harmless) fear might be the opportunity it provides for staying present. Think of this as mindfulness training for a pandemic era.

“It is really hard to be worrying about COVID-19 when you’re on a roller coaster or in a [socially distanced] haunted house,” said Naomi Sadeh, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences who investigates why people engage in risky and self-destructive behavior. “Your body just wants to prioritize paying attention to your environment, because there might be something scary lurking around the next corner. It’s a good way to stay in the moment.” Case in point: One study suggests feeling harmless fear can help us to stop ruminating on other, real-world problems, shocking the emotional system in a helpful way.​

Of course, no matter how many benefits there might be, this type of spooky therapy will never appeal to everyone. For people who’ve undergone trauma, scary scenes might serve as a memory trigger best avoided. In most cases, it comes down to baseline arousal. In other words: How much more energizing can your system take? If you are a person who already naturally operates at a high level of stress or worry, partaking in spine-tingling activities can “tip you over into an unpleasant state that might persist for a while,” Sadeh said. But, if you are a more laid back or perpetually underwhelmed person, a creepy thrill or two is going to feel more enjoyable.​

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Naomi Sadeh

​Everyone carries around a metaphorical stress bucket, said Prof. Naomi Sadeh of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, and if yours is already full, even “fun stress” like that caused by entering a haunted house, can “tip you over into an unpleasant state.” ​​

According to Rosen, individual fear tolerance is determined by a number of factors, including, even, how stressed out your mother was while pregnant with you — the more stress biochemicals you were bathed in then, the less likely you’ll be able to enjoy that scary movie now. But there are strategies for boosting this tolerance.

“One way is to keep trying,” he said. “The more you experience these scary things, the more habituated you will get, so they won’t have as much of an effect.” You can also modulate your fear response by conducting your own behavioral cognitive therapy, he added, by talking yourself through a frightful moment: None of this is real. Those zombies are only pretend. I like haunted houses — really, I do.

You could argue that if you have to talk yourself into something, maybe it’s not worth the headache. After all, each expert agreed, the real purpose of a spooky activity is pleasure — no reason to force it, and no reason to overthink it.

“Movies and haunted houses are about going out and celebrating the season with friends,” Sadeh said. “This is about having fun.”​

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