Updated: Oct 14, 2020
All the Halloween fright-night lovers reading this have already answered a resounding “yes” to this question. Many of us love to be scared. In fact, Halloween spending expected to generate $8 billion sales in the United States this year—much of that on frightening decorations and horror attractions. The horror film genre makes serious bank as a rule, with the seven top-grossing horror flicks of all time generating over $500 million each. Clearly, fear can be good for business. But is it actually good for your mental health?
Ways We Experience Fear
The way in which we experience fear has a lot to do with whether or not that fear is enjoyable. Fear responses release dopamine in the brain, a chemical that is also related to motivation. In fact, the fear response in the brain is closely related to the pleasure response. This explains why being startled can lead to giggling in social settings, once the frightened person recognizes there is no impending danger.
Frightening scenarios experienced in social settings can be strong bonding experiences. Think of the tight-knit band of teens attending a haunted house together or a group of scouts gathered around a campfire scaring one another with tall tales. Experiencing heightened emotions along with others creates an emotional bond. Humans are by nature social creatures. When we experience stress together and survive, the friendships created in that moment often last. During these social experiences, participants rely on one another for emotional support, even when the danger is only imagined. Afterward, our mutual experience bonds us in the way only shared memories can.
Fear with an Expiration Date
For frightening circumstances or stimuli to be healthy or fun, they need to come with an expiration date. Many chronic health conditions have been linked to unresolved anxieties or extended stress. For the chemical fear response to be fun, it’s important that we realize that we are safe—and that our bodies get the message. When we go to a safe place—our own living rooms, a familiar movie theater, a professionally managed haunted house—and experience a fright (intentionally or not), our brains are quickly able to assess, after the initial fear reaction, that we are not in any immediate danger.
Once the safety of a situation reaches our brain, the relief leads us to relax. Some of us might laugh. Problem fear or anxiety only comes when the brain does not receive this essential “all clear” message.
Following the autumn equinox and leading up to days of harvest, humans have, for hundreds of years, indulged in celebrations of hauntings, death, and other dark subjects. This appears to be a natural human tendency, and many of us have created special memories surrounding this season of the year. As the weather cools, leaves fall, and Nature sheds her summer garb for winter, feel free to indulge in some playful fright. It just might provide some emotional benefit.