Why Do We Like Getting Scared?

spirit-1775547_1280Whether it’s celebrating on the first day of Autumn, the entire month of October, or just today on Halloween, now’s not just the time for posting photos of changing leaf colors and apple picking, but for pumpkin carving, costumes, and yes, spooky activities. Everyone has different feelings about whether they like to get frightened or not, and all are completely justified. While some refuse to watch a show with just the slightest hint of a jump scare, others will jump at the opportunity to enter a pitch black maze, excited to see what the unknown has in store for them.

But why do some of us like that feeling? Why do we like to be startled, and for the briefest of moments, feel unsafe and have our world shaken up? Margee Kerr, a sociologist at Pitt, explored this, explaining how voluntarily engaging in high arousal negative experiences (known as VANEs), like going on a roller coaster or watching a scare movie, can be positive. This is especially true when the activity comes across as dangerous, but is almost always in a safe environment.

For the study, the researchers went to ScareHouse (be warned, the website itself can be a little terrifying for some), advertised as Pittsburgh’s “scariest haunted house.” She not only talked with those who worked and haunted-house-2839157_1280designed the haunted house to see how it worked, but gave surveys to those who had already purchased tickets to get information about their feelings before and after. The majority of the participants, about half, said that their mood had improved, especially those who were tired or stressed. Some of the participants wore sensors and had less brain activity when completing tasks after, which was described as being similar to a “zen state,” the kind of calm feeling that happens during mediation, for example. Think of it like ripping off a Band-Aid: you’re afraid of the pain before it happens, once it does, it hurts for the briefest of seconds, but afterwards, you feel better and almost relaxed.

The article goes on to explain on how getting scared and the positive feelings that come afterwards are similar to the goals in exposure therapy, a kind of treatment for different types of mental illnesses where the person is shown the things they don’t like, but in a safe environment. This is done in order to reduce that fear. Kerr suggests that for those with social anxiety, for example, going to a haunted house with a ridiculous situation like a subway car full of zombies makes an everyday, packed subway, less terrifying.

This isn’t the only way to help anxiety, so if you don’t like getting scared, don’t think that it’s the only solution. However, if you do, a scary movie playing in the background as you work on a paper may make that assignment slightly less scary.

Happy Halloween! 


Do you like getting scared? If so, how do you think you can adapt it so you can use it when you’re feeling anxious or stressed? What are your favorite Halloween activities?

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Moderator ★

Hi! The moderator is a research team member with a background in behavioral health. We're here to help answer your questions and stimulate some great conversation! We don't provide therapy and are not available 24-7 so please if you are in crisis, go to our crisis page: https://sova.pitt.edu/i-need-help-now We look forward to talking to you!

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