Fear: The psychology behind the scream

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Noor Qureishy

Fear is an enjoyable experience for students in controlled, safe situations. "The fact that there isn't a physical threat to you while you watch a movie [allows you] to be scared but still have fun," junior Justine Miller said.

Amodhya Samarakoon, Health & Wellness Editor

An avid horror fanatic struts out of the movie theaters with blood pumping fast, giving off an air of confidence; a crowd of moviegoers carefully brace themselves for the inevitable scream-worthy scene, their white knuckles accompanied by wide eyes and minds on full alert: fear is addictive.

While some people scare more easily than others, the symptoms of fear are the same across the board: increased heart rate, higher sweat production, and more awareness to one’s surroundings signal that terror is very much present.

“It’s really interesting to see what things scare me and what don’t,” junior Justine Miller said. “Psychologically based horror movies are my favorite. Pretty much all horror movies scare me, I’m easily scared,” she said.

Psychological thrillers or horror movies use the protagonist’s fears and reactions to instill terror in the audience. This is seen in The Conjuring, Psycho, and House at the End of the Street rather than clearly showing a monster attacking the characters.

Many seek out fear inducing situations for a rush, an increased sense of accomplishment or confidence, and to feel closer to one another, according to a Huffington Post article entitled “This Is Why We Love To Scare Ourselves Silly.” When people scream or feel their heart lurch in terror, endorphins rush into their bodies, giving them a sort of natural high, often accompanied by a sense of confidence or bravery.

Even those who don’t ordinarily like being scared can be affected by the high that fear brings. Although it may seem as though liking to be afraid is more of a personal choice, every individual’s reaction to fear really ends up depending on their brain chemistry.

Dopamine is always released when one is in a scary of thrilling situation. ”

According to new research in The Atlantic from David Zald, Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University, some people lack “breaks” between the release of endorphins and its subsequent re-uptake. This has the effect of increasing an enjoyable sensation of fear.  

Psychologically, when we make it through a safe yet scary activity it results in feelings of [competence and success] – it’s a real self esteem boost. There’s nothing quite like defeating a horde of zombies in a haunted house…to make you feel like you can take on the world,” sociologist Dr. Margee Kerr stated in an interview with the Huffington Post.

Also, enduring a hair raising scream inducing experience with friends acts as a bonding experience, meaning that people feel closer to the people they experience fear with.

“We’re taking on these challenges together and in doing so creating stronger bonds, stronger memories, and feelings of closeness. If you watch people coming out of a haunted house you’ll see lots of hugs and high fives,” Kerr said.

However, fear is not always so enjoyable. Sometimes, fear causes unpleasant anxiety and therefore makes one feel stressed.

Upper School History and Psychology elective teacher, Ryan Oto, provides some insight: “in psychology, [this is] what we study as the mind-body connection where fear oftentimes creates anxiety. Anxiety causes stress, and stress can elicit emotional [and physical] responses [which we associate with fear.]”

Walking alone at night and sitting in a theater with friends watching The Visit both result in increased heart rate, high blood pressure, and a sense of fear, but the former situation is also accompanied by anxiety.

“I think there’s something to the [connection] between controlled fear settings and uncontrolled fear,” Oto said. Going to a movie theater with the mindset that one is going to experience fear establishes a situation where all the symptoms of fear are expected, “whereas when you’re walking home and are approached by someone you don’t know, it’s a different type of fear,” Oto said.

Miller agrees: “the fact that there isn’t a physical threat to you while you watch a movie [allows you] to be scared but still have fun.”

To freshman Husaam Qureishy, the genre of horror doesn’t induce true fear at all. “No matter how much I expect, or don’t expect, to be scared, I never will really feel true fear,” he said.

Watching a character on a screen doesn’t endanger the viewer, allowing them to experience terror without the anxiety and stress that often accompanies unpleasant scary situations.

“When I am watching a horror movie, it’s a completely different feeling [from real life fear.] Knowing that someone else is in danger and not me is much easier to emotionally take in,” Qureishy said.

So whether one fears the monsters in real life, or those imagined on movie screens, it is clear that just as monsters vary in their ability to scare, so do people in their ability to be frightened by them, or even enjoy their presence.