My childhood best friend loved to watch horror films and then – home alone – will herself to walk slowly down the basement steps in the dark … one … step … at a time. I did not. As much as she wanted me to, I refused to watch the movies; there was no pleasure in it for me. Instead I read classic horrors – The Shining, Silence of the Lambs, Dracula, Carrie – in their more palatable book forms so that we could still share. We both enjoyed scaring others, but we varied greatly in our taste for being scared ourselves. Studies that look into such personal differences pertaining to fear often come down to what makes us feel safe in a given situation and variations in individual brain chemistry.
I grew up in a family that loved Halloween and, as I have written about before, happily embraced seasonal opportunities to create extravagantly scary situations. There was something in the tacit agreement about being scared on Halloween that made it okay to take things to another level. Whether for front yard decorations or the theatrical, neighborhood haunted house we ran, the people stepping up knew what they were in for. And that didn’t just make things feel different, it made a difference in the brains of those being scared.
It isn’t surprising that getting scared releases adrenaline – it’s what our body needs to fuel a fight-or-flight response. But it is less intuitive that fear also triggers the release of dopamine, one of the pleasure chemicals used in the reward system of the brain. Dopamine is meant to send the internal message that, good job body, the fear response meant to keep us alive did its job. Once neurotransmitters like dopamine are released in the brain, they activate special neuroreceptors which both triggers the desired response (reward) and sends a message about slowing down the release of more of the same neurotransmitter to stop the overall process. Research suggests that people who have fewer of certain types of neuroreceptors aren’t as quick as sending that second kind of message. By the time the body gets the message of “dopamine received, stop the presses,” more dopamine has already been released. Those people will experience a bigger reward and more pleasure than those with more of the relevant neuroreceptors. The resulting physiological reward for experiencing risky situations or fear can be bigger.
But brain chemistry is just part of the equation. Sociologist Dr. Margee Kerr explained that – even with the dopamine – really enjoying the sensation of being scared depends on a deeper understanding that you are safe. Haunted houses can be fun, because you know at the base they aren’t real. Roller coasters can be fun, because you trust the design to be safe and just enjoy the panic responses all of your other senses are sending to your brain. But what makes you feel safe and how much pleasure comes from the scare can vary greatly from person to person. Memories of formative or traumatic experiences can melt away the comfort available to other people. Personal anxieties about heights, tight spaces, the dark, or loud noises can remove that ability for certain people to feel safe, and thus take away their ability to enjoy the experience. And for young kids – with less of a clear sense of real versus pretend – the monsters can feel real and the impact can be lasting.
It wasn’t fun – or at least never was for us – to scare somebody who didn’t fully understand it was pretend. When younger kids or even nervous older ones came to the front porch on Halloween, my dad was always ready to lift his mask, kneel, and say he was “just Amanda’s dad.” Many times, those kids would watch other trick-or-treaters scream, laugh, and walk away basking in how scared they had been. Some would come up – even just later the same night – and say they wanted to try it again. For those who didn’t want to, there were always treats in the driveway. That mutual understanding can be the dividing line between something like a haunted house and an upsetting prank.
Our haunted house had an age restriction against children 12 and under. Even though we had started building early versions as young kids ourselves, its later form was fewer creepy decorations and more psychological tactics. The restriction was meant to protect kids with big imaginations, but it also let the adults in the group enjoy the experience without having to watch out for younger ones with them. Even so, we had adults get scared. One woman (an annual attendee) crawled out once mid-show. But everyone knew that, if at any point they got too scared, they just had to say, “I want out.” A pen light would turn on, one of us would grab on to their arm, and we would lead them off into the dark – ten seconds and done. Then the person had the disarming experience of stepping into the light of the basement stairwell and having an early teenage version of someone like me pull off a black mask and ask if they were okay.
The goal was never to make them feel bad; it was to make them feel comfortable. If we had time, one of us would talk them through the next few minutes of what was happening to their friends. Ok, when you hear this in the music, this is going to happen behind them (screams). Then you are going to hear a bang and they are going to realize they have been separated (bang – more screams). I would smile, and they would smile. If they seemed calm enough, sometimes we asked if they wanted to join back up in the last room. We would give a very basic description of what would happen. Some of them didn’t, but some of them did. Maybe we had just seen enough people come through our doors to recognize the difference between people who just needed a reality check and people who were just done. There was no point in trying to convince someone who no longer wanted to be scared; they would just do it because you wanted them to, not because they wanted to themselves. Some people may want to watch scary movies alone in a basement and others may max out at shouting boo from around the corner. But regardless of whether it is due to dopamine levels or a childhood run-in with a big dog, everyone deserves to a chance to enjoy the day in their own way and on their own terms. Happy Halloween.