Fear as fun: Why do some people enjoy horror films, haunted houses?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

It’s the end of October, which for many people means haunted houses, horror movies, and dressing up in frightful costumes. We sat down with Stephen Maren, University Distinguished Professor, Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, who researches fear and memory, to gain an understanding of how fear works and to ask the question: Why do we find putting ourselves in fearful situations so alluring? This interview has been condensed for length and clarity. 

Can you tell me a bit about your research on fear mechanisms?

We are focused on two questions here. The first is: How does the brain store memories of fearful events and what brain areas are important for that function? We know that the amygdala is a key player in storing fear memories, which is a part of the brain in the temporal lobe that deals with emotions.

The other question we are interested in is: How do you suppress fear memories? That’s the clinically important problem because when someone goes to a therapist with pathological fear, such as someone with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), they are looking for a way to suppress or dampen their fear responses. So we are interested in the circuits of the brain that can sort of shut the amygdala down.

What made you interested in asking those questions and in this research?

My interests go back to my days as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, where I was in a lab working on learning and memory. We were looking at an aversively motivated task, where animals had to learn how to make a response to avoid a foot shock. That got me generally interested in fearful memories, trauma, and the clinical tie-ins to disorders like PTSD.

As a general overview, how does fear “work” psychologically?

Fear is all about the state in your brain when you detect threat. How you respond behaviorally to that threat is determined by a number of factors, one of the key ones being how close it is. If there is a threat that is really close to you, you might actually try to escape or run away. If the threat has actually made contact with you, you might flail around, scream, or vocalize. Whereas if the threat is distant and you want to avoid detection, you might freeze. 

So what we study in the lab, primarily, is freezing behavior, which is a good readout on fear in the animal model that we use. In general, fear is about the emotion that arises when danger is present. 

Why do you think people enjoy putting themselves in situations that cause fear (horror movies, haunted houses, etc.)? Is that the same type of fear as you just mentioned?

With fear as entertainment, whether in movies or haunted houses, people can enter into those situations knowing that ultimately there is no real danger. The amygdala is the fear center of the brain and directs all sorts of responses — freezing, taking flight, hormonal responses, adrenaline, etc. Initially, you will get those responses activated (which are pretty easy to do), then you tell yourself it’s not real. 

I think people get a thrill out of fear as entertainment because they activate the amygdala, but ultimately know it’s not really dangerous. The fear inhibition systems (the areas of the brain that we try to get involved during therapy) are engaged to regulate and suppress the fear, and people can remove themselves from the situation if they become uncomfortable. 

People don’t voluntarily go into truly dangerous situations normally, unless it’s part of their responsibilities or job. Combat is one of these examples, where it’s truly terrifying and potentially traumatic. But most people wouldn’t voluntarily choose to enter those situations otherwise. 

Why do fear systems react the same way to stimulations when it’s not a real threat? 

Fear comes online in the same way when you detect any threat — whether it’s in a movie or a dog is chasing you in your backyard. But when the threat isn’t real, you then dampen the active amygdala pretty soon after you know it’s not a serious threat. The prefrontal cortex then inhibits the amygdala and dampens fear responses, which happens quickly.  

If you are uncertain though, the prefrontal cortex won’t be engaged. The first process of fear emerging from a threat is fast because it’s adaptive and important that we respond quickly. The second process with the prefrontal cortex is slower and necessarily cautious, because you want to make sure the threat is not real before you shut everything down. So if the threat is real, those things don’t come into play.  

Are there potential risks to putting ourselves in these situations? Are there any benefits to it?

I don’t think there’s any real risk or physiological harm. The person who is “scared to death” is an outlier or very rare case. 

The benefits might be that you can explore these potential threats in a safe setting and learn about situations that might arise in real life, even though some are pure fantasy. It might allow you to prepare for that if it happens, or see if your reaction is to freeze, panic, etc. 

Why are some people less fear-averse than others? 

There are big individual differences to all of this. For instance, I am not a huge fan of horror movies, but my daughter loves them. I would generally believe that folks that seek out horror films and entertainment tend to like adrenaline boosts — they are the people who probably enjoy bungee jumping or skydiving — things I’m not particularly thrilled about doing myself. 

There may be systems in the brain that deal with rewarding stimuli that are activated with these fear factors. Even if they are seen as unpleasant or aversive by some, the thrill that it can produce may activate rewarding pathways in others.

What’s important for people to keep in mind about fear?

My research focuses on PTSD, where people have an overactive amygdala and a low functioning prefrontal cortex to control the fear. People with PTSD will probably avoid fearful situations that remind them of their trauma. But in a safe therapeutic setting, we allow people to encounter these stimuli where they know it to be safe and controlled in order to extinguish their fears. 

Fear is a healthy brain system and is highly adaptive — it serves us well and keeps us safe from threats. But it can become pathological with trauma. We are working on solutions to deal with that. We want to better understand the way these prefrontal cortexes can dampen the amygdala and suppress fear in order to improve clinical interventions.

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