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Why Do We Like to Be Scared?

Scary movies

The response you get from watching a scary movie is always the same. You start to sweat; your heart beats faster, even covering your eyes as you hear the main character scream. Depending on who you ask, that sounds terrifying -- or terrifically fun. So why do some people love to be scared?

Turns out our brains are wired to be more sensitive to fear.

“Excitement is the cousin of fear,” said Rajita Sinha, PhD, Founding Director of the Yale Stress Center. At moderate levels, that fear makes you feel “pumped up.”

That may sound familiar if you love to chase thrills. That same rush from sky diving or mountain climbing can be attained at some level through a trip to a haunted house. In order to enjoy those scary situations, David Klemanski, PsyD, MPH, Director of the Psychological Assessment Service for Yale New Haven Hospital, said we need to know we are safe.

“Essentially we can put ourselves in these situations that are scary because our brain knows it’s not real,” Klemanski said.

We are able to make that assessment through learned experiences. Are you sitting in a movie theater? Are you sitting next to your friends? Have you watched a scary movie before? Those cues provide a powerful signal to your brain, allowing you to enjoy the experience.

Tolerance for fear

Not everyone loves horror movie marathons. Our tolerance for fear is dependent on a few factors. Some people have a predisposition to thrill seeking. Others enjoy scary situations because of learned associations. If you watched scary movies growing up and had fun, chances are you are touching on those memories every time you watch a creepy flick.

Jump scares can also bring people together. If you and your friends survived a haunted hayride, Dr. Klemanski said it creates a “bonding experience.” You get to walk away with a new memory and bragging rights to boot.

Of course, these situations aren’t for everyone. Dr. Sinha stresses that our ability to enjoy these experiences is very dependent on a number of factors, including age and our life experiences.

Learning through fear

A little bit of fear can be good for us. Dr. Klemanski and Dr. Sinha both said it’s through fear that we learn. The obvious lesson is “don’t go there!” when you pass a dark alley or a shadowy figure approaches. It can manifest in other ways too, like when we are anticipating a big presentation or speech at work.

“We often think anxiety and fear are bad things but they’re actually pretty instrumental. They teach us things, they help us learn what we can tolerate, what we can’t and we can also push our boundaries a bit,” Dr. Klemanski said.

The more we confront it, the more comfortable we become in the face of fear.