The psychology of fear

For some, Halloween means curling up on the couch and watching a favourite horror movie. The resulting jump scares, hellish demons, and bloody deaths provoke an emotion we are all too familiar with: Fear.

“Fear is an emotional state—the unpleasant feeling of being afraid—that emerges when we perceive an imminent threat to our safety,” Josué Haubrich, a postdoctoral researcher in McGill’s Department of Psychology, wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune.

The stimulus that invokes a fear response is often a physical threat, such as heights or spiders. However, it can also be psychological, as is the case with a fear of midterms or social rejection. When a person encounters a particularly-frightening stimulus, the brain reacts and sends signals to the rest of their body, which can result in a faster heart rate, shortness of breath, muscle tension, shaking, and feelings of panic and uneasiness.

Despite the sweaty palms and occasional screams conjured up by horror movies, many of us intentionally subject ourselves to situations that make us feel scared. Interestingly, this morbid attraction to fear is a product of evolution for humans and other mammals, honed by a long-time association between fear and survival.

“Fear is a natural and beneficial emotion that actually helps to keep us safe,” Haubrich wrote.

In fact, research suggests that humans have even evolved to enjoy experiencing fear in safe contexts. Like riding rollercoasters or playing hide and seek, watching horror movies enables us to trigger the instinctual thrill of adrenaline rushes while avoiding the costs of any actual danger. Developing a familiarity with fear even lets us establish coping strategies for dealing with real scares later in life.

“For most people, I think this is related [to] an avidity we have in experiencing different emotions,” Haubrich wrote. “Real-life threatening experiences trigger a number of biological responses aimed to prepare our [….bodies] for fight-or-flight responses. Part of these responses are triggered by horror films, and some people enjoy experiencing it in a safe environment.”

Humans like to experience emotions, especially the kinds that linger after the fact. This phenomenon is known as the ‘excitation transfer process,’ in which the physical reactions that accompany fear during the movie are later replaced with relief and intense positive feelings.

On the other hand, uncontrollable fear—the main cause of many anxiety-related disorders—is problematic and can even be incapacitating.

The continuum of mild to severe fear is a result of the interaction of different factors, including genetic variability—which gives individuals a predisposition to be fearful of something—as well as developmental factors such as childhood neglect or traumatic experiences. These factors influence why some people despise horror movies and why others can’t seem to get enough of them.

Another, gentler, factor may also be at work. Horror movies tend to evoke fear because they toy with empathy. They often involve characters that are not so different from us, arousing our ability to share others’ feelings. The fear is much more real when we can relate to the characters, which is why more empathetic viewers, who react very negatively to human suffering, tend to dislike horror movies.

Hollywood understands the psychology behind fear and uses it to enhance the effect of horror movies. These films play into common human fears such as the dark, the unusual, and death. Cinematically, they use techniques such as excessive use of negative space, spooky music, and prolonged scenes to make the audience tense and uncomfortable.

Still, our reactions to scary movies are not simply a product of the film industry’s clever techniques; they’re the result of life experience, personality, and human evolution. Similarly, Halloween is not simply a celebration of fear. As a day now known for its consumerism, costumes, and candy, Halloween’s more basic foundation is a celebration of the creativity of the human mind.

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