What Scares Us and Why?
As we have followed the story of Halloween through the end of the 19th century, the customs and practices were almost always focused on coping with threats and dangers that were thought to be unavoidable. Bonfires, disguises, ceremonies, and food offerings were all intended to keep evil-bringing ghosts, spirits and witches distracted from causing real harm to people, farmlands and crops.
In part 4 we looked at the shift away from these superstitious fears and toward greater focus on community, parties and fun costumes. In other words, Halloween celebrations stopped being a way to deal with the fear of threats over which we had no control. As we discussed in part 5, though, Halloween without the scary stuff just wasn’t right for a lot of people. Terrifying movies and realistic haunted houses in theme parks became great commercial successes and are well attended to this day.
So why do most of us enjoy being scared so much and why? The physiological changes when we are frightened are clearly negative: sweating, rapid heart rate, hyperventilation and, longer term, the release of corticoids that can seriously impact our health and reduce our lifespan. Can there also be a benefit from these physical reactions? Numerous psychological studies suggest the answer is “yes” if there is at least a subconscious awareness of fundamental safety and a sense of choice about having the experience or not.
Flying an airplane is an excellent example and pilot training everywhere involves spending many hours in a so-called flight simulator. For professional pilots, these devices have exact duplicates of the interior of the cockpit for the model plane they will be flying. The “windows”, however, are computer screens and using the controls causes the simulator to pitch and roll almost exactly as an actual aircraft would respond. Even so, the pilot knows that he/she is in a simulator and so is actually safe from any harm.
Something quite interesting happens as the pilot deals over and over again with different problems (and quite a few simulated crashes). The brain activity in the regions linked to “fight or flight” diminishes, enabling the pilot to reduce panic and avoid freezing in a crisis situation. The sense of being safe because they are in a simulator is replaced with a sense of being safe in an actual airplane because they now have confidence that they can handle whatever happens. The health benefits of reducing stress in this way are obvious.
With this reduction in the release of adrenaline, together with successfully dealing with whatever scared you, your body also releases endorphins and dopamine (the so-called “pleasure chemicals”) which produces a sense of euphoria. Since these are the same substances that are released by affection and closeness, it’s no surprise that we often seek to share scary experiences with others. This is true regardless of the activity – watching a scary movie or going to a “haunted house”, going on a roller coaster or rafting down a raging river.
So, if we like being scared, what elements of movies, plays, books and poems play to our fears and phobias? It will be different for everyone, of course, but here are some things to reflect on the next time you go to a scary movie, listen to a Halloween play, or read a terrifying poem.
- Many of us were afraid of the dark when we were children because we had no way of knowing what the darkness was concealing from us. Even as adults, when something unknown is hidden in the shadows, we get scared.
- Things that creep and crawl, like spiders, snakes and rats, are often sources of fear – especially if they touch the skin, and even more if they do so in the dark.
- Places that are associated with death, decay, and darkness where evil things can hide such as graveyards, old houses, dungeons, attics and underground tunnels.
- Characters who are disfigured or suffered dismemberment are often sources of fear because they involve the loss of a part of the self. Famous examples of grotesquely disfigured characters include Frankenstein’s monster, the Phantom of the Opera and zombies.
- The best scary stories and horror movies make extensive use of suspense. Suspense involves creating anticipation that something bad will happen but with no clue when it will happen. Some of the most memorable horror stories are the ones that create anticipation but then violates the audience’s expectation.
- Music can create moods and elicit emotions of dread, fearful anticipation and shock. If properly selected and matched to the action, creepy music can greatly intensify the fear elements already present.
- Sudden flashes of light and deafening sounds such as lightning and thunder create a startle response and can enhance other fear factors – so long as it isn’t overdone. If it is too frequent or inappropriate to the other actions taking place, it can make the entire story unbelievable and boring.
- Highly unusual looking or behaving people and things can be a frequent source of fear. Interestingly enough, something that is not normally scary can be turned into an object of fear if the story reveals it to have sinister characteristics. Six very successful horror movies were made over a 25 year period based on the gift of a doll that was possessed by the soul of a serial killer named Chucky.
Well, now you know the story of Halloween and why it continues to entertain us to this day. Now that you know…come and enjoy getting scared at Entity’s performance of THE DARK! Don’t forget to bring your friends – it’s more fun that way.
In any event, happy trick-or-treating, everyone. Watch out for black cats and don’t walk under any ladders!