Full disclosure: I'm a huge scaredy-cat. I will seriously scream at scary commercials when I'm home alone. Even weirder? I actually love being scared and go out of my way to watch horror movies and regularly went to haunted houses all through grade school. This makes me wonder: Why is being scared so fun? What is it about being terrified that's awesome enough that I continuously seek out the experience?
Luckily for me, I'm not alone in this desire to scare myself silly. Studies show that some people love being scared because of certain chemical reactions that occur in our brain; basically, for some of us (myself included) we love the high-intensity rush associated with fear we know isn't real — but when we "survive" the fear (the movie ends, someone spills the popcorn, etc.), our feeling of relief and triumph over the fear feels totally real, even though we knew all along that we were never really in danger. Cool, right? Even cooler is that when "survive" the fear, we often get an ego-boost and feel more confident about ourselves. It's why haunted houses and scary movies are said to make great first dates.
TED-Ed has an excellent video exploring why people love being scared that made me feel worlds better about my love of screaming my head off while watching horror movies at 2 a.m. I broke down highlights below, but be sure to check out the full video at the end for even more cool discoveries about why people love being scared.
1. Fear Can Make Your Body Feel Awesome
OK, I know this sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out. When we experience fear, we have a chemical reaction in our brains that sends signals to the rest of our body to either stand our ground or run away — that is, it triggers out fight or flight response. In horror movie terms, your brain is trying to get you to decide whether to stay and battle with the machete-wielding serial killer in your bathroom, or run up to the attic and try to climb out the window. Now, if you're staying to "fight," your body often enters into a survival mode in an effort to protect yourself. Your brain starts sending signals that you're essentially "shielded" by giving you enough energy to (hypothetically) fight and protect yourself (or, arguably, flee and run away). This brain signal also shuts down non-essential systems, like critical thinking, so you're focused only on survival. For a lot of people, this chemical reaction basically feels like you're on top of the world and invincible.
2. Fear Is Similar To What We Experience In Other High Arousal States
The chemical reactions aren't exactly the same; however, the "high" and arousal we feel when we're experiencing fear (heart pumping, blood rushing, dizziness, etc.) is similar to the chemical reaction we feel when we're in other high arousal states. Some of these other high arousal states include excitement, happiness, and even, you guessed it, sex. What's the difference? If we're in real danger, we're focused on survival, not fun. But if we trigger the high arousal response in a safe space (watching a movie, going on a rollercoaster, etc.), your body is safe to enter the euphoric state of being scared while simultaneously having fun.
3. It's Normal To Enjoy Some Fear Responses And Not Others
Personally, I love scary movies and haunted houses, but I am petrified of heights. I'm afraid of heights to the point where I don't find rollercoasters fun, even when I'm scared. In general, the rush of the rollercoaster (aka the fear you're going to fly out while you're about a billion feet in the air) is what makes the experience feel high-adrenaline and fun. Me? You couldn't pay me to actually sit in one, no matter how fun everyone says it is. Science says, this makes sense. Even if you're an adrenaline junkie, or an absolute horror buff, fear responses vary between people, so it's totally normal to enjoy one "fear experience" and dread others, even if they're all in good fun and not real.
So, there you have it! If you love screaming your brains out while watching a movie or boarding the tallest, curviest rollercoaster possible, you are certainly not alone. Check out the full video here from TED-Ed to learn more about why we, as humans, love feeling afraid.