Navigating the Fear in Our Lives

By Tanner Weigel, Staff Writer

I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have seen a truly scary film. I don’t really know how to explain my aversion to these movies, but the bottom line is that I see no appeal in startling myself. I have many friends who absolutely love being scared, however. When this time of year rolls around, I will generally receive an invite to the local corn maze or haunted attraction. And I will always politely decline.

Of course, we know that hordes of people frequent movie theaters and scary attractions in order to get a good scare. Why would anyone in their right mind enjoy this? The answer is, naturally, entirely scientific.

Nope, Not Watching This, Courtesy of Business Insider

Fear manifests itself physiologically as increased heartbeat and breathing, sweating, and activated muscles, and is triggered by the amygdala. The amygdala is the “primitive mini-brain” that allows organisms to make split-second decisions in order to assess danger. If a predator is coming after you, for example, you need the amygdala to trigger a fight or flight response immediately. When that deranged clown jumps out at you in a haunted attraction, the fear is instant. After a brief moment, however, your brain realizes there is no actual danger, and the “chemical cascade” that ensues in your brain can now induce a positive feeling. And beyond this, you feel the satisfaction of having conquered a terrifying situation.  Because of the numbing effect of receiving the same “scare” over and over, effective haunted houses present various sensory situations, such as changing lights, different room temperatures and diverse auditory inputs.

Now, I have had situations in my life where I have been scared, and then enjoyed the experience. Riding roller coasters is the perfect example. No matter how many times I go to an amusement park, I always have to convince myself that I really will enjoy myself the first time I am strapped into the ride harness. And then, of course, I have no issue enjoying myself the rest of the day. Am I just a holdout? Would I really end up enjoying myself if I went to a frightening Halloween attraction or indulged in a horror movie marathon? Perhaps.

As it turns out, the dopamine that is released during moments of terror lingers for some people more than others. When the re-uptake of dopamine is delayed an individual can enjoy a thrilling situation longer. An individual’s childhood experiences also likely determine future perceptions of scary situations. Remember, the whole premise of enjoying terrifying moments is based on the fact that your brain will recognize that the situation doesn’t actually pose any danger. If you went through a haunted house when you were too young to realize that the monsters weren’t real, then you might have an aversion to scary situations for the rest of your life.

In thinking on my childhood, I can recall only one definitive case of scary movie trauma. Somehow I saw a scene from the movie Mars Attacks!, and was subjected to a few seconds of terrible green aliens vaporizing unsuspecting earthlings. But that was all it took; the image was seared into my mind. Ironically, Mars Attacks! is categorized as something of a twisted science-fiction comedy, and not entirely horror. But I don’t know that I could go back even as an adult to watch it in its entirety. In fact, when the most recent reboot of It came out, the majority of the middle school students I taught told me they had seen it, and were generally unimpressed. I was floored! My sheltered mind couldn’t imagine seeing something like It, much less not being at all scared by it.

My Kind of Horror, Courtesy of Imgur

On the flip side, growing up in the desert, I have always been around creatures that some people absolutely hate. I know which animals can actually cause harm (you should be wary of a rattlesnake, but that doesn’t mean they are going to come after you), and which ones may just look unsettling. In fact, during most summer nights driving home, I would come across tarantulas casually traipsing across the road. I think tarantulas are amazing, and have no problem picking one up. It’s amazing how childhood experiences can shape our future behaviors.

To return briefly to the initial issue of scary movies, there is a great deal of diversity in terms of what films have been produced. Movie plots can range from thrilling to horrific, and from unsettling to purely sadistic. I think I would have to be able to differentiate among different types of horror movies in order to ever start watching them in earnest. And in the end, it may be a purely visual issue. Is it just that I can’t stand the sight of blood or am I far too disturbed by certain movie scenes, no matter how improbable? Perhaps I need to view horror as more of a social experience, and consider how friendships can be strengthened when individuals go through scary experiences together.  

A genre I have yet to mention is the horror novel. Naturally, the pace of reading is far different from that of watching a movie. I actually loved R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series when I was younger (who am I kidding, I’d probably read them again now). I am fascinated by the worlds that Stephen King has created (but just won’t watch them, as mentioned before) and have been on a literary sci-fi/thriller/horror kick for a while (Does Annihilation count?). So in the end, maybe it’s the way I consume horror that’s different, and not just a general distaste of the topic. Either way, you’re still not going to see me at one of those scare attractions anytime soon.

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