Last Updated October 31, 2007
By Nicole Tomlinson
Why do so many people plan, pay for, and take pleasure in a good scare?
Whether we find fear appealing or appalling depends, apparently, on our own interpretation of an identical biological response.
For example, more than two-thirds of Canadians intend to celebrate Halloween this year, according to data released by the Retail Council of Canada. The survey found we plan to spend an average of $59 on a holiday known for its scary spirit — some of us hoping "the night of the dead" will strike fear into our hearts.
Bulgarians perform a "Kukeri," a ritual dance, near a bonfire in the village of Cherna Gora, some 50 kilometers west of the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2007. "Kukeri" is an important masked ritual in rural Bulgaria with participants dressed in sheepskin garments and wearing scary masks with the intention to scare away the evil spirits or ghosts. "Kukeri" dancers perform mostly in first half of January. (Petar Petrov/Associated Press)
This desire to be afraid seems puzzling when you consider that, for others, fear can be debilitating.
Anxiety disorders, such as phobias and panic attacks, are the most common category of mental problems worldwide. An estimated 12 per cent of people in Canada are affected by anxiety disorders that can interfere with their ability to function in society, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada.
Psychological reactions to fear may span a vast spectrum, but, as Dr. Eilenna Denisoff from the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto explained, the biological mechanisms are exactly the same — regardless of whether you love or loathe being scared.
"The physiological arousal — the adrenaline, the sweating, and the increase in heart rate — seems to be the identical in terms of what we can measure," Denisoff said.
"It's the interpretation of the physiological response … that's different."
If our bodies all react the same way to fear, how can the desire for — and dread of — an identical biochemical process in different people be rationalized?
Part of the answer may lie in the fact that a situation that's dangerous or threatening is processed in the emotional centre of our brain before the logical centre, Denisoff said.
"Think about a haunted house … if somebody jumps up and says 'Boo,' the emotion gets activated, and we get up and scream even though we know it's somebody dressed up in a costume," she said.
Denisoff explained the reaction to fear doesn’t favour logic, but it's beneficial from an evolutionary perspective.
"If the function of the brain is to keep us alive, then it actually should be programmed to respond [to a potentially dangerous situation] just in case, and then figure it out later," she said.
"If it were programmed to respond in the opposite direction, [our reaction] may be too late."
Dr. Martin Antony, a professor in the department of psychology at Ryerson University, said our psychological reactions to fear can also depend on how safe we perceive our environment to be.
"With haunted houses, for example, if people thought there was really an axe murderer in there that was going to kill them, they wouldn't go in," Antony said.
"The only reason they enjoy the rush is they know the axe murderer in the haunted house isn’t really an axe murderer."
According to Antony, some humans are attracted to regulated, somewhat predictable scenarios designed to illicit fear because they're looking for an adrenaline surge — and they want it risk-free.
"People get the rush, the excitement, and the exhilaration, and they get to stay safe," he said.
"They believe they're in control of the situation. Even if they don't know exactly what’s going to happen, they feel [it's] not going to be dangerous."
In contrast, Antony said people suffering from anxiety disorders often lack the ability to rationalize their fear, and therefore don't feel secure.
"In terms of haunted houses, horror movies, and other Halloween things, I think there's a big difference between the kind of fear people experience and the type of fear people have with a phobia," he said.
"People with phobias want to run away from something, because they're not as certain about the situation."
Denisoff explained people with anxiety issues develop a "fear of fear itself," becoming not only petrified of their phobia, but terrified of feeling afraid.
"Anxiety sensitivity is the degree to which somebody interprets anxiety symptoms as uncomfortable, or even dangerous," she said.
This emotion, Denisoff said, can trigger a positive feedback loop as the body reacts.
"Some people rush to the emergency with a panic attack because they interpret it as a heart attack. They might do it three times a week, but each time they're somehow convinced not to take the chance," she said.
"If you start to think, 'This is the real one, you have to get to emergency, there's something wrong with your heart,' your anxiety does get activated and your heart rate does go up, so it's more convincing."
In order to treat anxiety disorders, Denisoff said patients have to understand that their reactions to fear, although physiologically normal, are often psychologically irrational.
"People have to be objective observers of their symptoms, as opposed to being afraid of them, because being afraid of them cranks them up even higher," she said.
"Over repeated exposure, or what we call 'habituation,' your brain actually figures out, 'Oh hang on, that's a false alarm, it's not really a threat or a danger.'"
Fear, otherwise known as "the fight or flight response," is defined by Antony as a basic emotion that exists to protect us from immediate danger by getting us out of a threatening situation.
The same response that attracts some people to roller coasters, horror movies, and, of course, Halloween, is commonly accepted as an evolutionary mechanism.
But Denisoff thinks the emotion does more than just help us survive — she says fear can also allow us to thrive.
"It was Eleanor Roosevelt that said, 'Do something every day that scares you.' I think she just meant don't shy away from excitement, because excitement is about starting a new course," Denisoff said.
"Do we feel anxious when we do that? Of course, but challenging our anxieties and our fears adds to our quality of life overall."