Psychologist: Brain enjoys fear when it knows situation is not real


Though Halloween is this weekend, it’s not the first gala this spooky season has brought thus far. By now, Manhattan restaurants, stores and houses have been decorated with a cluster of cobwebs, goblins and ghosts.

The beginning of October marks the time to bring out the old slasher movies and begin planning those haunted house trips. Such events are typically described as chilling and bloodcurdling — which makes all the more reason for doing them. Why, you ask? Well, because the thrill of Halloween is terrifying, haunting and downright addicting.

Fear is universally understood this month; in fact, it’s often expected of a community to immerse itself in the customary scary tactics.

The consumer spending total for the 2010 Halloween season is expected to reach $5.8 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. Uniformly, the average consumer will spend $18.66 on spooky decorations this year. Spending money on things that would normally bring chills down the spine; now, that’s a scary thought.

“When it’s dark, I can’t walk out to my car alone because it’s too scary at night,” said Kelly Burkhart, junior in family studies and human services. “But I would go inside of a pitch-black haunted house with friends or go trick-or-treating at night because it’s supposed to be scary. That’s the whole point.”

In a word, Halloween is the exception; it is the one time of year when people can put aside their fears and, in turn, embrace all things unnerving.

“Halloween’s all about make-believe,” said Dr. David Pincus, licensed clinical psychologist from Orange, Calif. “It allows an outlet for the shadow side of your personality.”

No matter if a person gets spooked by creepy crawlers, people in masks or the mere thought of death, Halloween downplays the severity of each fear, making it less scary.

“We consciously know that these things are not real. We don’t actually want to be chased by an axe murderer,” said Gary Brase, associate professor of psychology. “We get auditory and visual stimulation (through movies) without vicariously being a part of them.”

Fear works like this: You see something scary, like a clown coming toward you, and your brain judges it as unsafe. Then, your adrenaline kicks in and jolts your sympathetic nervous system, thus causing you to react; whether it be to run or attack. (See, paying attention to lessons in psychology class can be beneficial.)

In the spirit of All Hallows’ Eve, letting yourself experience fear is all part of the excitement. Scary situations trigger the neurotransmitter dopamine, which excites pleasure points in the brain, according to After something frightful, dopamine is the chemical that makes such an experience worthwhile.

“Part of our brain is designed to like certain things,” Brase said. “Scary movies, and so on, are ways neurotransmitters get the ‘rush’ of being scared without actually endangering our lives.”

Indeed. Pincus said many individuals are motivated to seek that dopamine rush by stimulation of brain pleasure systems in the hypothalamus.

“There is a biological ground of personality,” Pincus said. “Some people are born with a lower basal arousal level, and those folks tend to be sensation seekers and enjoy the scary things about Halloween.”

More than anything, however, a bit of creativity is all it takes to get the mind excited about all things spooky. Imagination is the mediator and inventor between the brain and the scary situation that is presenting itself, Pincus said.

“Imagination is the room where all these things happen. It is the reason arousal and stimulation occurs,” Pincus said.

So this weekend, when the costumed demons and witches are out at night, try to have fun with your fears. If you are one to seek sensation and love all things Halloween, embrace that shadow part of your personality. After all, being a chicken has never been allowed on Halloween.