Sweaty palms, a racing heart and a tingly, hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck feeling—are all physical signs of anticipation that something scary is about to happen. With Halloween gone for another year, the time is right to examine the psychology behind why we love (or hate) to be scared.
Imagine walking into your house after a long, tiring day. Flicking on the light switch surprisingly provides no light. Is the electricity off? In the dark, your mind begins to race when next you hear the creak of an upstairs floorboard and a heavy thud. Not a good feeling to come home to, is it?
Instead, imagine this same scenario taking place in the middle of the latest popular chiller-thriller at the movie theater—you might be on the edge of your seat—enjoying the scare. Anticipating more. After all, you paid for it. You are expecting it.
So, what is actually happening here? Apparently, humans do not enjoy an unexpected scare; but, many of us do enjoy predictable fear.
In a Psychology Today article published on Halloween 2014, Alex Korb, PhD, noted that the body shows very little physiological difference between fear and excitement. In both instances, the limbic system is the focus as it is the brain’s ‘emotional circuit’ comprised of the amygdala and hippocampus. The areas within the limbic system are connected to the brain’s hypothalamus--the body’s stress response control. Thus, according to Korb, when a situation causes us fear (or excitement)—the hypothalamus “instructs the body to increase your breathing and heart rate, dilate your pupils, and make your palms sweaty”.
Unlike the fear that an armed intruder is in our house, the choice to scare ourselves for entertainment does indeed scare us but, at the same time, allows us to still feel safe. We could not predict the intruder’s presence, however, as Korb concludes: “. . . we like haunted houses because we choose to go into them . . . We like scary movies because we get the rush of fear without having to sacrifice anything [except the cost of the ticket].”
In contrast to our learned fears—and the excitement we feel from them—from darkened staircases, creepy costumes and creaking floorboards—other categories of fears exist. Fears we are born with—also known as innate fears—provide us with instincts imperative to our survival. Amazingly, though, we are only born with two: the fear of falling and the fear of loud sounds.
In an October 2015 article for CNN.com, writer Nadia Kounang discusses the ‘fight or flight response’ that can occur when we hear a loud sound. She quotes Atlanta Georgia’s Emory University translational neuroscientist Seth Norrholm who explains the fight/flight reaction as the result of our acoustic startle reflex. According to Norrholm, when a sound is loud enough “you’re going to duck down your head” since loud sounds typically startle us. “That circuitry,” says Norrhom, “is innate.” It is a natural human response from signals received to help identify threats that something dangerous is about to happen. These two basic fears have allowed humans to survive natural disasters and ancient predators.
In addition to these two categories of fear--learned and innate, a third category of human fear can be examined—that is, a grouping known as irrational or illogical fears. Fear of snakes or spiders or bugs; fear of public speaking; fear of fire; fear of getting sick; and fear of death. The list is seemingly endless. The range of fears is limitless. But the characteristic shared by all fears in this group is that they are unwarranted. And often excessive.
Some irrational fears only surface when a situation involving the feared entity presents itself. Someone you know well may behave completely rationally in most situations. But, add a large, hairy spider to the mix and your easy-going friend may scream and run. Such occasional exposure to one’s fear and the resulting response probably do not interfere with the individual’s daily life.
However, as Katherina Houner, a postdoctoral fellow at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, explained in a Scientific American article, an unwarranted, persistent fear of a certain situation or object can become a phobia. And such phobia can cause overwhelming distress and interfere with daily life. According to Houner, such specific phobia are among the more frequently occurring anxiety disorders. “Common subtypes include fear of small animals, insects, flying, enclosed spaces, blood and needles,” she explained.
In the first inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt as the 32nd President of the United States in 1933, his induction speech was punctuated by his now-famous line: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is . . . fear itself . . .” Roosevelt was referring to the nation’s fear of its financial situation during the Great Depression. At the time, citizens were withdrawing their money from banks in fear of losing their life savings. But, Roosevelt’s words have stood the test of time. Sometimes, indeed, in the case of irrational, unwarranted fears—the anxiety itself is worse than the reality.
Houner, K., (January 1, 2014). Why Do We Develop Certain Irrational Phobias? Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-we-develop-certain-irrationa/
Korb, A., PhD., (October 31, 2014). Predictable Fear. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201410/predictable-fear
Kounang, N., (October 29, 2015). What is the science behind fear? CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/29/health/science-of-fear/index.html