During normal times, somewhere right now, people would be lining up to scare themselves, maybe with a thrill ride, horror movie or a horror book like “Half-girlfriend” and “Two States”-. But many consider this behaviour obnoxious, begging the question.
What could possibly be fun about being scared?
Fear gets a bad rap, but it isn’t all bad. For starters, fear can actually feel pretty enjoyable. When a threat triggers our fight or flight response, our bodies prepare for the danger by releasing chemicals that change how our brains and bodies operate. This automatic reaction jump-starts systems that can aid in survival. They do this by ensuring we have enough energy and are protected from feeling pain and shutting down nonessential systems like critical thought. Fear makes us feel painless and energized. While not getting caught up in worrisome thoughts that normally occupy our brains, sounds great, is quite similar to what we experience positively, like excitement, happiness, and even during sex. The difference is embedded in the context. If we’re in real danger, we’re focused on survival, not fun. But when we trigger this high arousal response in a safe place, we can switch over to enjoying the natural high of being scared. It’s why people on roller coasters will go from screaming to laughing within moments. Your body is already in a euphoric state. You’re simply just relabelling the experience.
Fear brings more than just a fun, a natural high. Doing things that we’re terrified of can give us a nice boost of self-esteem. Like any personal challenge, whether it’s running a race or sitting through an entire Modi speech, when we make it through to the end, we feel a sense of accomplishment. This is true even if we know we’re not really in any danger. However, let me clarify, walking into a Salman Khan movie is a real danger to the brain. Especially to the physics textbooks sitting at your house.
Why does fear feel good?
Our brains may know that zombies aren’t real, but our bodies tell us otherwise. The fear feels real, so when we make it through alive, the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment also feel real. This is a great evolutionary adaptation. Those who had the correct balance of bravery and wit to know when to push through the fear and when to retreat were rewarded with survival, new food, and new lands.
Some people though, can’t take even a touch of fear. It’s because we don’t all release large amounts of dopamine when in a state of fear. So, the next time your friend refuses to go for a horror movie with you, call them a “dopamine deficient piece of anthropological waste” or how we Indians say “phatu.”
On the other hand, there are people whose brains get accustomed to certain fear stimuli to the point where the brain no longer releases dopamine or adrenaline, for example, the author of this article. I’ve done multifarious thrill rides, watched a ton of horror and been to many haunted houses as well. In fact, one time in an exam, I purposely wrote all wrong answers in my quest to seek fear, or that is what I tell my parents when they question my poor performance in exams.
Finally, fear can bring people together. Emotions can be contagious, and when you see your friend scream and laugh, you feel compelled to do the same. This is because we make sense of what our friends are experiencing by recreating the experience ourselves. In fact, the parts of the brain that are active when our friend screams are active in us when we watch them. This not only intensifies our own emotional experience but makes us feel closer to those we’re with.
The feeling of closeness during times of fear is aided by the hormone oxytocin released during fight or flight. Fear is a powerful emotional experience, and anything that triggers a strong reaction is going to be stored in our memory really well. You don’t want to forget what can hurt you. So, if your memory of watching a horror film with your friends is positive and left you with a sense of satisfaction, then you’ll want to do it over and over again.