October brings a certain element along with its anticipated arrival. It is a month unlike any other, truly. Fall is in full swing, leaves are changing colors, jeans and sweatshirts are eagerly pulled from storage, pumpkin patches and hayrides are weekend adventures, the air smells like roasting marshmallows and wood smoke, and the nights are charged and sharp-edged.
In addition to that, haunted houses creak open their doors, horror flicks play in theaters and on every network, and the otherworldly somehow feels more ... present. If you're like me, you enjoy amplifying that presence with a good scare.
I enjoy being scared. Always have. Ever since the moment that I decided to watch The Exorcist when I was in 7th grade, alone in my house and utterly unprepared for what I was about to experience. It was the first horror film I had seen. Sure I had caught bits and pieces of them -- I was in 7th grade and my parents weren't big on censorship -- but they didn't really enjoy them, so I wasn't exposed to them. I loved RL Stine's Goosebumps and Fear Street novels, and I think that's where my love of horror and suspense was born and nurtured. My gravitating toward the horror movie genre was the natural progression of things ... but why?
I am certainly not alone in my feelings. Lines are out the door at all local haunted houses and movie theaters all throughout October.
Well, there is actually psychology and brain chemistry behind it.
Psychiatrist David Zald's interest in the matter took him to Vanderbilt University to conduct some of his own research. He found that, essentially, people who enjoy being scared produce more dopamine, the molecule responsible for making us feel accomplished and rewarded, ie: good.
The brains of fear-seekers aren't able to regulate the dopamine as well, and it makes us all crazy in our search of the adrenaline rush that being scared offers.
We, quite literally, get off on it. It makes us feel alive.
Those of you who do not enjoy being scared simply have brains that are better at regulating your dopamine.
There is also evidence that the experience of fear shared with another brings us closer to them. How many first dates have ended with cuddling in a movie theater because of a scary scene? How many times have you clutched your partner in a haunted house when the demon clowns jump out at you?
Right, you get the idea.
Not all fear is equal, however. We enjoy controlled fear.
Margee Kerr, a sociologist at Robert Morris University and Chatham University, explains the difference:
"It's all about triggering the amazing fight-or-flight response to experience the flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, but in a completely safe space," Kerr stated in an interview with The Atlantic. "Being scared lost in the woods alone with no help in sight — bad; being scared lost in a haunted house with your friends, with professionals no more than twenty feet away ready to whisk you out of danger — good!"
She goes into further detail in the below video:
The "fight or flight" instinct within us is triggered when we are scared -- and surviving that makes us feel confident, like we've achieved something and, maybe for a short time, even invincible.
That is an intoxicating combination.
See? Science. Science explains why, after watching The Exorcist alone in a dark house in the 7th grade, I was terrified of being alone and curled up under the covers in my bed forcing my boyfriend to talk to me on the phone until my family got home and, simultaneously, so unfathomably invigorated that I didn't know what to do with myself.
It also gives me a sound argument for my mom when she asks me why I'm so twisted.
Science, mom. Science.