From Stephen King fans to real-life ghost hunters, people have been embracing the creepy crawly corners of the world in search of their next scare. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole was originally published in 1764 and is said to be the first official Gothic/horror story, but long before that grandmothers were weaving tales of banshees and sirens. So what is it about the frightening that we find fascinating?
According to Katherine Brownlowe, M.D., a psychiatrist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, it’s all down to how our brains react to being afraid. She spoke to Healthline on the subject and explained how the natural chemical reaction humans have to fear can be used recreationally:
The frontal lobe is the thinking part of the brain. It’s the part of your brain that can modulate the more primitive response and tell you-you’re OK right now. So if you’re in a situation like a haunted house and something jumps out at you or you hear a scary noise, your body goes into a fight or flight mode, but your frontal lobe still knows you’re safe and will calm you down, allowing the situation to be more pleasurable. It’s like your brain is at the edge of danger, but it knows it’s not actually at risk. Because humans like to survive, there’s no time for your frontal lobe to think ‘Wait, let me consider this and get more evidence.’ In a situation where you don’t know if you’re safe or not, you’d probably run and scream.
This same flight or fight chemical release is what moves people to ride roller coasters, bungee jump, or skydive. Most of us no longer face real danger in our daily lives, so we seek out things that will make us feel afraid, and in turn, alive. But why are only some people into being scared? Horror fans may love films like Saw, while others seek out the quieter haunted house movies like The Woman in Black. Where does our fear come from and why might it be different for some?
One of the most interesting things about studying fear is looking at the social constructions of fear, and learned fears versus those fears that appear to be more innate, or even genetic. When we look across time and across the world, we find that people truly can become afraid of anything. Through fear conditioning (connecting a neutral stimulus with a negative consequence) we can link pretty much anything to a fear response. Baby Albert, of course, is the exemplar case of this. The poor child was made deathly afraid of white rabbits in the 1920’s, before researchers were required to be ethical. So we know that we can learn to fear, and this means our socialization and the society in which we are raised is going to have a lot to do with what we find scary.
Aside from cultural impact, the love of fear could be in your genes themselves. The recent access to DNA test means people can break down their genetic predisposition to certain things, and seeking out the scare may be linked thrill seeking and risk taking genes. Since our genes regulate the chemical releases in our brains in reaction to external stimuli, some people are actually predisposed to enjoy the chemical reaction of fear when coupled with the knowledge that the fearful situation is actually safe.
Cynthia Thomson, Ph.D., who conducted a study in 2014 at the University of British Columbia found that some people – those with the DRD4 receptor – may be genetically predisposed to more likely seek out this type of pseudo-fear. Since certain people have more receptors, it takes more to get a chemical response from the brain:
Certain individuals may be driven to take risks in order to reap the rewards, the rush – and this may be in part due to their genetic makeup. I found that individuals who reported riskier behaviors were more commonly of a certain type of genotype. [They have more receptros], so they need to seek out intense situations to bring up their dopamine levels.
Thompson theorized that more receptors also means that those with them actually might be getting a bigger buzz than others. This could be why some are more likely to enjoy a good jump scare than others. Ultimately, cultural and genetic factors likely work together to determine whether or not you seek out being scared, and what you might consider scary, to begin with.
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Images: NBC, Lionsgate Films, CBS Films, Blumhouse
Source: National Geographic