Mental Health

Does Being Scared Have Health Benefits?

With Halloween just a fortnight away, it seems like a good time to address why people pay money to watch horror movies and experience spooky attractions. What could be so alluring about being frightened to the extent that it leaves your hair standing on end?

As part of a recent study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh wanted to find out why people like to intentionally scare themselves. Guests who bought tickets to a haunted attraction volunteered to have their brainwave activity examined before and after the attraction.

Margee Kerr, adjunct professor of sociology at Pittsburgh, noted that the guests reported a "significantly higher mood" after their trip, as they felt reduced levels of anxiety and tiredness. 

That little high kicks in after your fight-or-flight rush fades away, once you realize you are not in any real danger. The response also floods your body with feel-good chemicals like dopamine. In other words, this could explain why people run out of haunted houses screaming but also laughing.

Scary, high-intensity activities in a controlled environment (i.e through a movie screen or haunted attractions) might be the most favorable context for you to feel fear in. As Kerr words it, you can use the "protective frame of entertainment" to shut down a part of your brain while you practice feeling scared and immersing yourself in heightened scenarios.

The benefit extends beyond the individual, also strengthening social relationships. For that, you can thank the release of oxytocin, also known as the cuddle hormone.

"When scared, the body releases oxytocin, which can help people become closer and bond," says Kris Kendall, who has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology. "The brain’s survival instinct is to pair with another human, or humans, to increase chances of survival."

While all of this sounds great, throwing oneself into fearful situations is still not for everyone. So if you have a friend with coulrophobia who is seriously insistent on avoiding the new movie about killer clowns littered with jumpscares, it is better to not go overboard about forcing them into it.

If someone suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder or extreme anxiety, such an event can worsen their symptoms. Loud and sudden noises, for instance, are a common trigger which can bring back traumatic memories, even if the source of the noise is harmless. Unsurprisingly, those with heart problems are not the most suitable people for extreme fright either.

"As a cardiologist, when I think about fear or certain stressors, I usually go to the bad place," said Dr. Nicole Weinberg, a cardiologist at the Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica. "But if the stressor is someone standing behind you and saying ‘Boo!’ I can’t imagine that’s bad for you. Just as long as you don’t already have a heart condition or have a risk of plaque rupture."