Haunted houses, ghost stories, horror movies, skydiving, even roller coasters … Human beings have become adept at finding ways to experience fear. But why? What is it that makes being scared fun?
To understand the answer to that question, it’s important to first understand what fear is, and why we experience it.
Fear is the body’s physical response to potential threats. When we encounter something that might be harmful – a bear in the woods for instance – our brains respond by flooding the bloodstream with adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol. It doesn’t matter whether the threat is real or pretend, because the brain’s reaction time is so fast that it has already released the hormones before we even become consciously aware of the threat.
These hormones have many effects on our bodies. Heart rate increases, and so does blood pressure. Senses sharpen. Muscles tighten. In addition, the adrenaline signals our brains to release opioids, which dull our response to pain, and endorphins, which produce feelings of pleasure. These effects are very useful in a fight or flight scenario, because they allow the body to run farther or fight longer.
Feeling afraid isn’t always pleasurable when there is a genuine threat, of course. But, because the fear response is triggered without input from our conscious minds, we can trick our brains into producing the fear response even in the relative comfort of a campfire circle or darkened movie theater. If the threat is controlled – either because it’s only on a movie screen, or because we are protected by safety equipment – we can experience the pleasurable side effects of fear without any real danger.