Saskatchewan·In Your Shoes

Why do people pay to be terrified? Scaring the Roughriders showed me why

The Saskatchewan Roughriders walk through an unnerving hunt, with a psychologist explaining why some humans like to be terrified.

Experiencing fear in a safe, controlled environment can be euphoric, says psychologist

A killer clown was one of the unsettling characters walking through a Mystery Mansion doll hunt in Regina on Friday night, with the Saskatchewan Roughriders the willing victims. (CBC News)

I'm dressed as a demonic rabbit and waiting in a nearly pitch-black closet to jump out at a group of Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Given these men are used to crushing 300 lb. attackers on the field, this doesn't feel like my brightest moment.

The Roughriders are here tonight courtesy of their running back Marcus Thigpen, who has decided, in one teammate's words, "to get Thiggy with it" and set them all up for a laugh. He's told them they're just making a quick stop before going to watch the Raptors' game on TV.

Instead, he's brought them to Regina's Mystery Mansion Doll Hunt. People entering this aging and creepy house must search and find six dolls, while bunnies in need of dental work and killer clowns jump out at unexpected moments.

Six dolls are hidden through the house, waiting to be found. (CBC News)

Dripping noises and a child's blood curdling cries echo hauntingly through the rooms.

"It's Halloween time. Being scared is always fun," Thigpen says, calling it an "adrenaline rush."

But is it? As I wait in the dark, my heart pounding, I'm struggling to understand why people keep describing fear — and scaring others — as an adrenaline rush. Why do people pay to be terrified?

Fear with a safety cord

It's not the actual sensation of fear that people enjoy, Dr. Steve Joordens, professor of psychology at University of Toronto Scarborough, tells me.

When you actually feel your life is in danger, your body goes into fight or flight mode. Your heart rate speeds up, your blood begins pumping and delivering more oxygen, as you prepare to fight the threat or run away.  

"It does feel energizing, but it doesn't feel good," he said, giving the example of someone feeling an earthquake beginning, or a woman who believes a man is following her.

"It feels scary, it feels terrifying."

But when people seek out thrills like bungee-jumping or skydiving, or going through a haunted house, there's an important difference, he said.

People who enjoy these kind of thrills can zoom out from the experience, realizing they are safe. And when they look over and see their other friends reacting, and laughing, they coast down the emotional roller-coaster, with dopamine flooding their system.  

"It's kind of like the parachute cord opening," he said, explaining people wouldn't enjoy that thrill without the parachute. "There's still this sense of control and safety behind the whole thing."

Delivering the punch

Now I can hear the five Riders coming closer to my hiding spot. They're joking with each other, but I can also hear their nervousness, not knowing what's next. Their voices buck me up, and that feeling of too-real fear subsides into realizing I'm in an act, that I'm safe — and I'm in control.

Five Saskatchewan Roughriders say they never get scared on the football field, but being confronted unexpectedly with a bunny with creepy teeth was distinctly unnerving. (Submitted photo)

Now I feel good, that positive chemical response surging through my bloodstream.

The door slowly swings open.   

A couple of the Roughriders swear, caught by surprise. They take a step backwards as they catch sight of me, before recovering.

"You need to stay in there," one of them warns me, as he reaches around gingerly to look for a doll in the closet.

I give a tiny wave, and I can see him cringe. This is getting more fun by the minute.

I follow them downstairs as they continue searching for the last dolls. They seem to be torn between laughter and terror.

"I farted," quarterback Brandon Bridge says more than once to his teammates. "I'm nervous."

But when they get to the final act and the last surprise of this Mystery Mansion, all five are jumping over each other to bolt out the front door. Their teeth gleam from the streetlight outdoors, as they fall over, laughing, feeling the euphoria that accompanies the realization there's nothing to fear.

A group of Saskatchewan Roughriders were feeling the rush after they got through a Halloween scare experience. (CBC News)

They turn on Josiah St. John, an offensive lineman with the team.

"Josiah St. John's supposed to be protecting, that's his job," Bridge says. "But this guy is the first man to break through the door!"

Thigpen's gotten what he wanted out of the night, a rise out of his teammates.

"We're together every day, so watching them outside of their element was a lot of fun," he says, chuckling.

Playing with our deepest fear

For Joordens, Halloween can seem like a strange holiday, in which people celebrate ghouls, demons and death. But in a world where there are real fears, Halloween can be a distraction, a chance to play in an alternate world.

"We get to play with our deepest fear, which is our own mortality," Joordens said.  "Maybe that's an antidote to all the other fearful things in our life, that we don't have control over."

After all, tonight, we'll be surrounded by our darkest nightmares. We'll flirt with danger. All bets are off. A short East Indian girl may even make a towering Roughrider fart with terror.  

But when we open our eyes and look closer, we know we can walk through all those fears, untouched. Just for tonight, we can feel invincible.

About the Author

Janani Whitfield spent 10 years working in the newspaper industry in Alberta before joining CBC Saskatchewan as a web writer in 2017. Contact her at janani.whitfield@cbc.ca on on Twitter, @WhitfieldJanani.

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