Fear. It’s something all humans share in their arsenal of emotions and reactions. It’s a survival mechanism that we’ve evolved to have, and it’s what has kept us alive for close to up to 200 millennia. It’s a feeling that we both dread and revel in nowadays, especially during every spooky Halloween season. But why do we enjoy fear every fall season?
From horror movies to haunted houses, we all enjoy these activities, especially in groups of friends. Fear has turned from something so necessary for survival to something that’s required in for social acceptance. According to Kansas State University’s Don Saucier, since Halloween is a holiday that is so culturally embedded into our society, fear is practically interwoven in the very fabric of Halloween. It’s something that’s unavoidable. At this point in history, because we aren’t really fighting for our survival, participating in fear inducing activities is more than socially acceptable; it’s necessary especially because subconsciously we know we really aren’t in serious danger.
So what happens to your body when you experience fear? Sweating, temporary brain function reactions, respiration, and your heart and blood (among other reactions) are temporarily different during the time of the emotion and even after. Your amygdala releases chemicals that either make you confront your fear or run away. Your sweat actually smells differently from regular sweat and it’s said that it could enhance your alertness. Obviously heart rate and blood pressure increases which pump more blood to your muscles and lungs should your body choose to run away. Due to the increase blood flow, your respiration also increases so that there’s increase in oxygen to your blood. Reading all of this, you’d think, why in the world would we even enjoy these feelings when we react to fear? Well it really depends on the person. Those who seek out horror and fear probably have an adrenaline-seeking personality, and what better way to get that adrenaline than after watching a horror movie or getting frightened at a haunted house. The relief response after fear intensifies positive emotions and feel-good chemicals (like endorphins) are released into our brain.
To some extent, fear induces arousal when in an environment where the person feeling it feels out of danger – i.e. sweating, hand-shaking fun. So the next time you enter a haunted house or watch a horror movie, know that this survival mechanism no longer is a means for safety from danger but another way to induce excitement and fun with friends.
If I wanted to write about addiction today, my own NPR habit would be an excellent place to begin. News, blogs, radio, podcasts, it’s just so accessible! Today’s entry is not about addiction, but this story does start with “so I was reading NPR News…”
So I was reading NPR News, namely an article titled “What Makes You Feel Fear?” which turned out to be even more intriguing than I expected when I decided to read it. Evidently, researchers have used carbon dioxide inhalation to elicit panic and anxiety in patients with amygdala damage in both hemispheres: patients with no fear centers. How could this be?
This startling discovery comes from a paper published this month in Nature Neuroscience by scientists at the University of Iowa. They tested three patients with Urbach-Wiethe disease (which resulted in bilateral amygdala lesions) by having them inhale CO2. All three experienced panic attacks as a result, and showed significantly increased respiration rates – even with respect to healthy controls. This finding lead the authors to hypothesize that the amygdala may even be able to temporarily inhibit panic, as it has many GABAergic outputs to brainstem regions responsible for panic responses. All of this is pretty stunning. (Of course, the results would have been more stunning if there were a larger group of lesioned patients – all three of them did experience panic attacks in response to the CO2 but so did three of the controls. Fortunately, though, people with bilateral amygdala damage are hard to come by. One could see how a lack of fear could be dangerous!)
It’s Halloween, folks, and you know what that means: Jell-O molds of brains and punn-y costumes (Freudian Slip, anyone?), right? Amirite? Okay, maybe that’s just me, whatever, guys. But I can name at least one cherished Halloween pastime that tends to be pretty popular across the board, and that’s the horror movie marathon.
As we learned earlier this month, the mechanisms by which our brains process fear are intricate yet animalistic—after all, we’re by far not the only species that experiences the sensation of fear. Though what may be a uniquely human instinct is the propensity to actually seek out fear (and the sensation of arousal that inherently comes with it)—a concept illustrated nicely in this piece from The Dana Foundation. This purposeful seeking-out of fear-inducing stimuli is undoubtedly present in the act of partaking in the aforementioned horror movie marathon, and a particular subset of said scary flicks (and the characters therein) will serve as the main focus of this post.
There are lots of types of scary movies out there, from the psychological thriller to the slasher film and everything in between, but today, for the purposes of this entry, our interests lie in the psychopathic killers. Whether your allegiances fall with Freddy Kruger or Jason Voorhees, the psychopath is a popular character in cinema and in popular culture in general. But what makes this character profile so enjoyable and even attractive at times? And furthermore, what can we learn from the psychopaths among us?