Why is it Fun to Feel Scared?


Chelsea Long, Writer

With it currently being the month of October, the talk about all things scary is in its absolute peak. According to a survey made in 2021, nearly a quarter of Americans say Halloween is their favorite holiday. According to yet another survey made in 2018, 52% of adults in the United States consider horror as their favorite movie genre. Personally, the month of October is my very favorite month of the year. All of the different horror movies, daunting costumes, and spookiness of it all never fails to bring a smile to my face. Many individuals, including myself, tend to ponder the same question, that is– what is it about being scared that makes some people feel such utter enjoyment?

As so many people suffer with anxiety disorders or the general feeling of anxiety, it’s likely that we might become extremely satisfied after realizing that we can handle the feeling of fright much more than we think we could. There is a hormonal reaction we get when we feel threatened or believe we are in a crisis of some sort, and that is the feeling of being incredibly strong or dominant. Essentially, our bodies release hormones that make us feel good under the right circumstances and make us feel as though we are prepared for whatever threat we’re facing. This release of hormones can also be called an “adrenaline rush,” and people experience them extremely often, especially when feeling scared.

Especially when consuming media that revolves around horror, humans tend to see dark subjects very appealing. It’s as though we seek out the feeling of being terrified just to feel anything at all. People need to release their strong emotions and being scared is one of the easiest ways to do it. Day-to-day life is often uneventful in some cases, so we may resort to horror movies, television shows, or books, simply to feel that rush of energy. For example, Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story made its way onto the popular streaming platform, Netflix, just last month. The thriller series revolves around the life of Jeffrey Dahmer, who was and still is a very well-known American serial killer and sex offender. He committed the murders of seventeen men and boys between the years of 1978 and 1991, taking place in either Wisconsin or Ohio. Although Jeffrey Dahmer was a horrible person, the amount of attention that this series has been receiving is absolutely baffling. It has officially become Netflix’s second most-watched English language series behind another horror fiction show, Stranger Things. Viewers of Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story have even crossed the line by saying that they wish the show “had more gore.” They genuinely want to see a reenactment of real-life people being brutally killed, which just shows that a person can yearn far too much for a simple adrenaline rush. Even though it can be a human instinct to enjoy feeling scared, it’s incredibly important to be respectful to victims who have actually suffered. Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story has revealed lots of people’s true colors, but that makes it a significant example of how strongly our brains can react when it comes to feeling afraid.

It’s also important to hear some words from psychologists who have studied this very topic. For example, a practicing clinical psychologist named Dr. John Mayer says, “When something scary enters our awareness, whether real or made up, fear induces the fight-or-flight response.” He suggests that our bodies determine if there is a real threat or not, and act appropriately to allow us to save ourselves if the situation calls for it. If there is no threat, the physiological and psychological mechanisms calm, and there is no more reaction. Sociologist Margee Kerr says, “If your body senses you are not threatened, you will still experience fear, but instead of releasing hormones that make you stronger and faster for defense mode, your body releases hormones that essentially make you feel good under the right circumstances.” She proceeds to give examples such as being on a roller coaster or walking through a haunted house and says that our brains know we are safe no matter what may “threaten our lives” during that time. Interestingly, how much a person enjoys horror films and thrilling experiences can also depend on how many autoreceptors their body has, according to a study led by David H. Zald. Autoreceptors are molecules that control how much dopamine and other chemicals are released. “People with fewer autoreceptors may get more dopamine from a scare, leading to an addiction to thrilling situations,” said Zald. On top of that, psychiatrist Katherine Brownlowe notes, “People who like to be challenged and enjoy thrills often find getting scared exciting. Those who have a more shy and sensitive temperament are less likely to go after those experiences.”

I figured I would get some words on the matter from one of Winthrop High School’s own psychology teachers, Mr. Dixon! Here’s a look at what he had to say:

“I don’t know whether people enjoy being afraid, really. I do know some of them enjoy being thrilled, though, and scary movies do that to us. So does driving too fast, bungee jumping, and other things that are just a little dangerous, but which don’t usually end up killing us; we get a stress reaction from those, a fight-or-flight instinct.” He describes the sense of alarm we get from those experiences, and how it’s a kind of adrenaline high. If it’s something we enjoy, we tend to seek it out again and again and again. He states, “That happens because when we get that adrenaline flow, but fail to get any really serious negative consequences, we feel a sense of triumph that our brain signals by releasing dopamine. And dopamine release is the same mechanism that controls many kinds of drug addiction.” Mr. Dixon suggests that we become addicted to the sensations these movies give us, and the “fear” part of that comes from a different part of the brain, the limbic system. He adds, “I really do think we’re less addicted to the fear these movies give us, than we are to the thrill that comes along with the fear. If we’re more into comedies than horror films, we’ll go see those instead because the comedy releases dopamine as well. It’s all about the chemicals in our brains!” He then goes on to explain how he doesn’t really get into horror movies all that much. “I tend to intellectualize them. I think that’s related to the fact that I don’t normally get the kind of stress reactions that a lot of people do. My theory is that people who are predisposed to be stressed a lot are also people who’ll really be into horror movies,” he comments.

So, why do certain people enjoy feeling scared, and/or the thrilling feeling that comes along with it? It’s quite difficult to explain, but what’s important to know is that our brains work in immensely peculiar ways that can affect what we enjoy and how we behave.


I’d like to give a special thanks to Mr. Dixon for sharing his incredible thoughts on the subject! He is full of knowledge and stories that make him one of the very best resources for anyone with burning questions having to do with psychology!