The psychology of fear, fright-nights and exploring the unknown
For some of us, the idea of watching a scary movie, or going to a ‘fright night’ experience, is the furthest thing from ‘fun’ possible. Some of us can’t even bear to watch something jumpy on TV without being behind the safety of a cushion. But for some, there are few bigger thrills than essentially scaring themselves witless.
I’ve long been fascinated by ghost stories and all things paranormal, in fact my parents were slightly concerned by my reading material when I was younger. The psychology behind not just why people find things scary, and why people seek out these scary thrills, is fascinating to me, but also why some people believe fully in the paranormal, whereas others very firmly do not believe.
Exploring the idea of why some of us like to ‘be scared’, whereas others find the idea hideous, there are a number of reasons that as psychologists we can draw upon to try and explain this. To put it simply, there is a neuropsychological reason – we get an adrenalin rush when something spooks us or something scary happens which releases endorphins and dopamine, so put simply, there is a chemical process that creates a similar sense of euphoria. Some say that having a ‘scary ghost experience’ is like being on a rollercoaster, we are hijacking the natural flight response and enjoying it.
There are also other factors at play, and often it can be down to personality type and whether we are sensation seekers – some people crave this rush and buzz that comes from a ‘scary’ experience, whereas some people want to avoid it. These reactions are often developed over years and our formative years, and how people around us react to scary experiences/moments can impact where we sit on that sensation-seeking scale and temperament.
We also have to look at the collective experience, so when you go to watch a scary movie, or a haunted house experience, or go ‘ghost hunting’, this is a collective experience, and you are creating a shared experience and bond with others. It can create bonds and a sense of collectiveness – people often talk about skydiving in the same way that having these ‘scary’ experiences in a safe and controlled environment can be a controlled way of playing on our brain’s natural reactions. Neuroscientists in the US have explored this concept of the novelty of a safe scary experience and an escape from everyday life.
You also can’t ignore good old curiosity. The unknown is one of the oldest curiosities that we have –what happens to us when we die? Is there an afterlife, do we turn into ghosts? I meet people all the time who are intensely curious about what they see as the unknown or the ‘dark side’ and that drives them to experience situations that are uncomfortable or scary.
So in summary, there’s not really one set reason as to why some people seek out scary experiences and others don’t. As so often with humans we are shaped by a number of different factors, and motivated by a number of different things. Ultimately it’s about what makes you happy and gives you kicks, and if that’s heading to a haunted house experience over Halloween, or hiding behind a cushion as a scary movie comes on TV, just remember there’s some psychology at play behind your reactions and your motivations.