Imagine you are walking through the local haunted house in your town. You’ve seen it advertised all month on TV commercials, on fliers in coffee shops, in the newspapers. You know that it is just an old house decorated with fake cobwebs and lights. You know that all of the “monsters” and “ghosts” in this house are really just your neighbors and friends in costumes, but you can’t help but be terrified. The hair on the back on your neck is raised; your palms are sweating; your heart is racing. Suddenly, a goblin jumps out from behind a corner and growls in your ear. Without even thinking about it, you either run away screaming or sock him in the nose.
It isn’t a conscious decision, and you hardly realize what you’ve done until you’re already halfway down the hall (or you’ve attacked the poor goblin). How is it that even though we logically know that the things in the haunted house—or the horror movie or the Stephen King novel—are not real, we still have these automatic physical responses?
Fear is the most basic, most instinctive reaction to our surroundings. Even the most unevolved creature—consider a tadpole, for example—will flinch and squirm at a mere shadow. The fight or flight response is an almost entirely unconscious and automatic response to any time your brain senses danger (HowStuffWorks).
Way back in the late 1880s, scientists identified the amygdala as the “fear center” of the brain. The amygdala is “an almond-shaped bundle of neurons buried deep in each medial temporal lobe, located just above the brain stem,” according to BrainFacts. It is responsible for decoding emotions and determining possible threats.
Since then, scientists have discovered that there are a few other areas of the brain that play a role in processing fear. The thalamus receives incoming sensory information—such as sights, sounds, smells, touch—and decides where to send it. There are two paths that this information can travel between the beginning and end of fear: the low road and the high road.
The low road follows the logic that it is safer to assume the worst possible situation, that way you are as prepared as possible. For example, when the goblin in the haunted house jumps out at you from behind a corner, the low road doesn’t take the time to consider that the goblin is actually just your neighbor in a costume. Instead, it quickly jumps to the assumption that the goblin is real and you need to either attack back or run away. In biological terms, the thalamus is receiving the sensory data and sending it straight to the amygdala, which in turn tells the hypothalamus to initiate the fight-or-flight response.
Meanwhile, the thalamus is also sending that sensory data to the sensory cortex to get some more information on the situation; this is called the high road. The sensory cortex interprets the information and passes it along to the hippocampus, which stores and retrieves conscious memories. The hippocampus gets some context on the situation, such as whether something similar has happened before or whether the brain has some clues as to what is going on. In other words, the hippocampus is the part of the brain that will say, “Wait a minute, I am in a fake haunted house, and this goblin actually looks a lot like my neighbor.” It will then send a message to the amygdala that there is no real danger, and the amygdala will in turn tell the hypothalamus to shut down the fight-or-flight response, which had already been initiated by the low road (How Stuff Works).
As we mentioned before, the high road and the low road are happening simultaneously. The low road is reacting instinctually to a perceived threat, even while the high road is evaluating the situation to determine whether or not it truly is a threat. That’s why you might find yourself suddenly realizing that the goblin in the haunted house is actually your neighbor only moments before your hands are striking out in self-defense.
So if this process of responding to fear is so instinctual, why do some people love to go to these haunted houses or watch scary movies? If fear is ingrained in the most evolutionarily basic parts of our brains as something to warn us of life threatening situations, why do some people seek it out?
Sociologically speaking, there are some people who crave the forbidden, or the “dark side,” of things.
“Some people have a need to expose themselves to sensations that are different from the routine,” said Glenn Sparks, PhD in a WebMD article.
However, there is actually a more scientific reason behind why some people love being scared: dopamine, which is one of the main hormones released in the brain during scary activities. This hormone, released by the fight-or-flight response, creates a natural high that can’t be replicated in any other activity, not even sex.
Even more, some studies have shown that people actually have different biological responses to being scared.
“Basically, some people’s brains lack… ‘brakes’ on the dopamine release and re-uptake in the brain. This means some people are going to really enjoy thrilling, scary, and risky situations while others, not so much,” said Dr. Margee Kerr, the staff sociologist at ScareHouse in Pittsburgh explained in an interview for The Atlantic.
In other words, the study argues that these people get more of a kick out of the dopamine that is released in their brains during scary situations, so they actually enjoy being scared more than other people.
Even for people who have a normal dopamine release-and-reabsorption cycle, this is the reason why you often laugh after the goblin jumps out at you in the haunted house. By the time your brain realizes that there is no real threat, your brain has already initiated the fight-or-flight instinct; shutting the instinct down releases dopamine, giving you that unique natural high.