The science behind the appeal of haunted houses, freak shows, and physical thrills.
P.T. Barnum's "Fiji Mermaid" was featured in 19th-century sideshows, billed as a mummified half-mammal-half-fish. It was actually the torso and head of a juvenile monkey sewn to the body of a fish. (Wikimedia).
This time of year, thrillseekers can enjoy horror movies, haunted houses, and prices so low, it’s scary. But if fear is a natural survival response to a threat, or danger, why would we seek out that feeling?
Dr. Margee Kerr is the staff sociologist at ScareHouse, a haunted house in Pittsburgh that takes all year to plan. She also teaches at Robert Morris University and Chatham University, and is the only person I’ve ever heard referred to as a “scare specialist.” Dr. Kerr is an expert in the field of fear. I spoke with her about what fear is, and why some of us enjoy it so much.
Why do some people like the feeling of being scared, while others don’t?
Not everyone enjoys being afraid, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that no one wants to experience a truly life-threatening situation. But there are those of us (well, a lot of us) who really enjoy the experience. First, the natural high from the fight or flight response can feel great. There is strong evidence that this isn’t just about personal choice, but our brain chemistry. New research from David Zald shows that people differ in their chemical response to thrilling situations. One of the main hormones released during scary and thrilling activities is dopamine, and it turns out some individuals may get more of a kick from this dopamine response than others do. Basically, some people’s brains lack what Zald describes as “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.
To really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we're in a safe environment.