As Halloween approaches, our entertainment becomes filled with advertisements for frightening films and attractions, from scary movies to haunted houses. While some people are quick to partake in these activities, others cannot stand the thought of deliberately being scared. If a person has a “thrill seeking” personality, they enjoy the mental and physical sensations that accompany fright. There are many reasons why one person might be a thrill seeker, while another is not. As a mental health provider in Hermosa Beach, CA, I am fascinated by the psychological underpinnings of human behavior. That is why as we approach Halloween I have chosen to focus on the psychology of fear in this month’s blog.
In order to understand the psychology of fear, one must understand fear from an evolutionary perspective. Fear serves a very specific purpose – to help us escape potentially dangerous situations. If something triggers a fear response, our bodies go into survival mode, we become more alert, and our senses are heightened. This was evolutionarily advantageous for our ancestors because those who had a sharper fear response were more likely to escape a potential threat.
Our fear response will elicit hormones that can be found appealing when a real threat does not actually exist. These hormones include adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, and other endorphins. This hormone secretion varies from person to person, contributing to the differences between thrill seekers and non-thrill seekers.
People who are drawn to frightening events may not enjoy the actual experience of fear itself, but they find satisfaction in the aftermath of it. The thought of having conquered or mastered something that is frightening leaves a person feeling confident. This can in turn bolster one’s self-esteem. It is no secret that people are attracted to things that boost their self-esteem, hence the appeal of facing and conquering one’s fears.
Some people are drawn to supernatural phenomenon because they truly believe in supernatural concepts. Recent findings indicate that almost 75% of Americans believe in the paranormal, such as ghosts or zombies. One reason that this number is so high is because humans create beliefs and assign meaning to events – we do not like to believe that the universe is totally random. We want to think that everything that happens has a reason, and supernatural forces can explain some of this. Therefore, those that do believe in the supernatural are also more likely to enjoy being immersed in it and the embrace the accompanying fright factor.
When frightened in a social setting, we tend to feel closer to the person that we experience that fear with. This is due to a misattribution of emotion. Emotions caused by one thing can often be assigned, mistakenly, to another thing. For example, if we see a horror film on a date, we will experience arousal from the film due to the hormones that are being triggered in our brains from the fear. However, many will mistake this arousal as a response to the person that they are with. This physiological arousal then translates to feelings of emotional attachment, creating the perceptions of increased closeness and attraction. People enjoy feeling connected to others, hence the attraction of seeking out emotionally thrilling experiences with others.
As you now know, there are many factors that can influence a person’s desire to be frightened. Remember to keep your individual differences in mind when making future movie selections or plans for the upcoming holiday.
If you have any questions regarding the psychology of fear, or want to learn more about why you are or are not an avid thrill-seeker, please feel free to contact me. Additionally, if you feel that you are in need of some tools for overcoming constant fear, stress or anxiety, please schedule an appointment for therapy with me via telephone or email. I look forward to hearing from you!