Halloween is just around the corner, giving us a great opportunity to relieve some stress and have a lot of fun. Yet, some people do not understand why anyone would want to do something scary when our lives are filled with so much stress and anxiety. The truth is there is a mental benefit to experiencing a controlled sense of fear. It’s one of the reasons we do crazy things like ride the fastest rollercoasters or try skydiving. That rush of adrenalin can be addictive, depending on your personality.
Let us consider the appeal of horror movies. When we line up to get our tickets, the primary emotion we feel is excitement. We are looking forward to getting into a dark theater and having some hideous creature make us jump out of our seats. It has been argued by academics that the purpose of this is to experience the relief we get after being shocked or scared. A study from the University of California, Berkeley by Andrade and Cohen revealed a far more interesting element to our compulsion. There is a part of us that is just as interested in experiencing the negative emotions as we do the positive ones, which often happens simultaneously. The researchers state, “When individuals who typically choose to avoid the stimuli were embedded in a protective frame of mind, such that there was sufficient psychological disengagement or detachment, they experienced positive feelings while still experiencing fearfulness.”
This raises the question, what exactly happens to our minds when we allow ourselves to be scared? Glenn Sparks at Purdue University focused on the physiological effects of horror films on young men. He discovered an intriguing pattern. The greater the fear, the more the subjects liked the film. In other words, the quality of the film improved for the viewer as the intensity of their reactions increased. Sparks proposed a thought-provoking psychological theory for this phenomenon. He argues that the removal of rites of passage in modern society, which usually challenges the young by putting them in potentially threatening situations, has left a void. All of us at some point or another have felt compelled to test our abilities to handle a scary situation, perhaps to ensure we will do the right thing at a time of crisis. It is suggested that horror films may help fill part of this void.
The most important component in this is the experience of fear in a controlled environment. Whether it’s watching a monster movie or walking through a haunted house, we know that nothing truly dangerous is going to happen. In that respect, we are able to release endorphins and forget about our mundane problems for a little while, and then return to the safety of a normal life without any repercussions. Unlike real world stress, the fear we feel has a more natural progression. Our fight-or-flight response is only triggered for a short period, giving us momentary bursts of adrenalin and cortisol, and then we are able to return to a calm state. This is healthy fear, as opposed to the pervasive anxiety we experience in our daily lives that does not permit our hormones to ramp down.
So take the time this Halloween to go out and enjoy some fearful fun. Whether it’s indulging in some classic macabre cinema or checking out the local haunted house, give yourself permission to scream like a little girl and release that inner tension. For those of us who live in Burbank, we have the ultimate one-stop horror shop. Dark Delicacies, located at 3512 W. Magnolia Blvd., is a specialty horror bookstore which boasts an impressive collection of DVDs. They also have a wonderful children’s section to get your kids into the spirit of Halloween, so there is something for the whole family. Be sure to check out their list of upcoming events for signings by your favorite authors, actors and directors.