The Science of Scared

There are tose who may be hoping to confront their fear, but probably shouldn’t

By Kellyn Brown

Returning from the concession stand midway through the showing of “It,” my eyes were adjusting to the darkness in the empty theater when my girlfriend jumped up from behind her seat and yelled, “boo!”

My heart leaped and I gasped for breath. I was already on edge from the movie, which I’ve heard some people describe as “not scary.” I disagree, but I scare easily and rarely watch horror flicks. I suggested this matinee because I read the Stephen King book as a kid and was feeling nostalgic.

To be sure, this was an unusual outing for us. I’m not one of those people. I mean the ones who are somehow wired to enjoy fear and watch every scary movie multiple times. There’s a cottage industry attempting to explain these people, who I assume consider Halloween their favorite holiday.

A study by David Zald at Vanderbilt University suggests our brains’ chemical responses can differ during thrilling situations. Some individuals receive a natural high because one of the main hormones released during scary and thrilling activities is dopamine. Fear-seekers may also experience a sense of accomplishment after sitting through something terrifying.

“Some people have a need to expose themselves to sensations that are different from the routine,” Glenn Sparks, PhD, told WebMD. “While experiencing a frightening movie may have some negatives, individuals often derive gratification because the experience is different.”

Then there are those other people: the ones who can’t watch the trailer for a horror movie, much less the whole thing. Those who may be hoping to confront their fear, but probably shouldn’t. The most famous example of an audience staring down fear and losing is when “The Exorcist” arrived in theaters in 1973.

Mark Kermode of BBC Radio 1 explained the reaction: “For some viewers, the experience of watching ‘The Exorcist’ proved overpowering. At a preview screening in New York, one audience member had to be helped out after becoming dizzy, provoking a wave of press reports of fainting, vomitings, and other hysterical reactions.”

When the film opened in the UK, Kermode wrote that ambulances were often called “armed with stretchers” just in case someone needed medical assistance.

Years later, in the nascent Internet age of 1998, the found-footage movie “The Blair Witch Project” was released. After a friend of mine watched it, he told me it was petrifying — under the assumption the footage was real. This, of course, was before you could check your phone to discover that was untrue.

The documentary-style horror film disturbed audiences across the country. The Associated Press reported that people had panic attacks when the movie was screened at the Sundance Film Festival. A theater manager told the AP at the time, “The first weekend someone threw up in the women’s restroom, the men’s restroom and in the hallway.”

I fall somewhere in between enjoying a little fear and puking. I’m susceptible to the so-called jump scare; a loud sound coupled with an abrupt image makes me nauseated. You know, like when someone jumps up from behind a chair in a dark theater and yells, “boo!”

And if I encounter a clown this Halloween, I’m apt to call it a night.

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