What drives the desire for a good scare?
By Amanda Jowsey
As summer fades to fall, most people pick pumpkins and apples, enjoy bonfires and take scenic drives to admire autumn’s colorful foliage. With Halloween approaching, others settle into a more sinister tradition: watching horror movies, visiting haunted houses and taking paranormal tours.
According to America Haunts, haunted attractions generate between $300 million and $500 million in ticket sales per year.
Why do we seek the thrill of fear? Why do we love the terror, the adrenaline, the ability to see some nightmares come to life? Can these experiences actually benefit our mental health? Can they harm us?
Laura Scaletta, professor of psychology at Niagara County Community College, believes that a person’s love (or hatred) of these frightening adventures can best be explained by the theory of motivation called the optimal level of arousal.
“The theory states that performance improves as arousal increases, but only to a point. Thereafter, arousal will lead to declining performance,” Scaletta explained.
Certain behaviors increase arousal, “a general level of activation by physiological systems including the brain, heart, lungs and muscles,” Scaletta said. “Sometimes, we act in ways to increase our arousal while other times, we act in ways to decrease our arousal.”
“For a select group of people, their optimal level of arousal is high. They try to keep it there, so they engage in exciting, thrill-seeking activities, such as scary Halloween activities, skydiving or watching frightening movies,” Scaletta said. “Conversely, people with a low level of arousal shy away from these activities and do not engage in anything that is overly stimulating.”
Scaletta wants to remind us that these experiences are solely for entertainment.
Whether or not they can benefit or harm mental health depends on the person and how he or she performs and functions within this theory of motivation.
Emily Rua, self-declared “scream queen and mistress of macabre” holds a bachelor’s degree in cinema-television from the University of Southern California. She has worked as both an actress and crew member on various horror movies and web series. She is actively involved in the horror and Halloween community. She is also a contributor to the Haunted Attractions Network, a resource for news, articles, resources, podcasts and events for the Halloween and Haunted Attraction Industry.
One of the best explanations of why people love to be scared in certain settings, Rua believes, is due to the social bonding this type of experience fosters.
“It’s sort of like trauma bonding. When people go through traumatic experiences together, they bond. Horror and haunted houses give you some of those same adrenaline rushes,” she said.
We go into and come out of these journeys together. Whether it’s a horror movie or a haunted house, “we all get to survive it and sort of laugh at that experience,” Rua said. Many times “there’s laughter involved. There’s a real release of emotion,” she added.
Her background in film taught her many of the critical theories that analyze and interpret this universal enjoyment. From a mental health aspect, Rua believes these experiences are important because Halloween and horror events “allow us to explore these themes and fears in a safe space.”
Although people do not share the same fears, fear itself is shared by every single person. It is a universal and unifying human experience. Rua has found these types of scary experiences to be a wonderful outlet for examining deeper human truths, where we can reach a level of understanding that we may not have otherwise discovered. It’s an exciting, safe and new way to tap into our own feelings and another’s through these psychological explorations.
Paranormal tours — Buffalo History Tours:
Paranormal Proof BusTour
One Naval Park Cove, Buffalo
Iron Island Museum (above):
998 Lovejoy St., Buffalo
Marble Orchard Ghost Walks:
476 Center St., Lewiston
Frightworld: America’s Screampark
1001 Hertel Ave., Buffalo
The Haunted Forests
2860 Beebe Road, Newfane716-464-8649
Everhaunt Haunted House
144 Lake St, Angola