Why Fear Makes Us Scream, Pee Our Pants and Enjoy It

PHOTO: Amy Rhodes and Andy Lassner navigate a haunted house at Universal Studios Horror Nights.Warner Bros. Television
Amy Rhodes and Andy Lassner navigate a haunted house at Universal Studios' Horror Nights.

Amy Rhodes, senior writer for the popular syndicated "Ellen DeGeneres Show," got a scary assignment from her boss: She had to tour a Halloween house of horrors with executive producer Andy Lassner for protection.

Rhodes scolds Lassner for using her as a block as they dodge blood-stained zombies and jumping bogey men in the haunted halls of a themed prison.

"Why are you hiding behind me?" she screams. "You're a man, be a man, be a man!"

The hilarious video of the pair went viral with more than 3 million viewers on YouTube, testament to the age-old maxim that people like to be afraid – very afraid.

  • Fear begins in the brain's hypothalamus.
  • The sympathetic nervous system is activated.
  • The adrenal-cortical system pours 30 hormones into the blood stream.
  • The body becomes tense and alert.
  • When fear passes, cortisol calms body down.

At the end of the tour, the cowardly Lassner asks breathlessly, "Why do people pay for this?"

As Halloween approaches this week, businesses are capitalizing on the psychology of fear. Last year. Americans spent more than $8 billion on scary costumes, haunted houses and fright fests, according to the National Retail Foundation.

Terror and ecstasy, after all, are not far apart emotionally.

Why do we watch stressful TV like "Breaking Bad?"

The Scariest House In The WorldPlay
The Scariest House In The World

Fear arouses a cocktail of chemistry in the cerebral cortex -- the part of the brain that controls memory, perception and consciousness.

Breathing steps up, the heart races, muscles tighten. The fight or flight mechanism kicks in -- even if the danger isn't real.

"You get a rush of dopamine, which is typically pleasurable," said Frank Farley, former president of the American Psychological Association and professor at Temple University. "You get it in risk-taking, like stepping off to do skydiving or something. There is going to be this rush."

Being scared is exhilarating and funny at the same time. It's fun to share that with your best friends. -- Debbie D.

The response is initiated in the brain's hypothalamus which activates the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system which pours 30 different hormones into the blood stream. The body becomes tense and alert.

From Halloween to horror stories, why we love to be afraid.

Reactions include increase in blood pressure, dilated pupils, constriction of the veins of the skin, causing the chilly sensation associated with fear. Blood sugar levels rise and the body shuts down its digestive and immune system.

Once fear passes, the body releases the hormone cortisol to calm itself back down to normal.

Debbie D., a saleswoman who grew up in New England, remembers the combination of fear and laughter that accompanied an incident at a pajama party in her rambling 18th century home.

The 11-year-old girls were huddled together in sleeping bags, telling ghost stories.


"The old walls were thin and we all stopped talking and were finally dozing off," said the 61-year-old, who now lives in California. "I remember hearing footsteps above us and one of the girls asked what that sound was. You could hear every sound in that old house, including the mice running around."

Debbie had anticipated a scare from her older sister, who had slipped down an old stairwell and was scratching the door with a curtain rod.

"I particularly liked getting spooked because it made us laugh more," she said. "Everyone joined in with their explanation of what the creepy sounds could be and slowly, but surely, terror and excitement crept back into the room."

Suddenly, her sister threw open the door and "roared awful screeches" as she shone a flashlight in the young girls' eyes.

"Being scared is exhilarating and funny at the same time," said Debbie. "It's fun to share that with your best friends."

But for some, fear brings only anxiety. One 11-year-old at the party peed her sleeping bag and another cried so hard, she had to go home.

Psychologist Farley said that some people are wired to be thrill-seekers and others are not. "The brain is involved and we don't know all the processes," he said.

How a person reacts to fear is based on three factors, according to Farley -- biology, psychology and social influences.

"Anybody who studies kids can line them up and see those who are risk takers and those who aren't," he said. "In part, it's genetic. But the amount of thrill-seeking is not totally genetic. It's false science to say it's heritable."

Thrill seeking can also be learned. "There is no question we are a learning animal," he said. "Genetics and biology are important, but thousands of years of culture and learning override all sorts of things. In other species, you take away their habitat and they die. We create a new one."

Communities and societies can also reinforce risk-taking behavior. Americans tend to "push the envelope and explore life," perhaps because of years of immigration.

"Immigrants going to a new life experience risk-taking even when uncertainly is guaranteed. They tend to take risks and be classic envelope pushers."

Sally Reed, director of communications for a nonprofit from Groton, Mass., doesn't like to be spooked. "The Twilight Zone scared the crap out of me," she said.

In high school she went to see the film, "Wait Until Dark" with an older date from Yale. That, however, turned humorous.

"There's a scene where the entire screen goes black and then after suitable suspense, horrible Alan Arkin lunges out of the dark at poor blind Audrey Hepburn," she said. "My date ... screamed a terrified falsetto girly scream and jumped into my lap.

"When I got home I howled with laughter," she said.

If Halloween horrors are any example, humor and laughter also seem closely aligned with fear. Such is an example of so-called gallows humor, according to Farley.

"Right when you are near death, you can crack a joke and laugh," he said. "Somebody says something and there is emotional facilitation or emotional contagion. At the extreme of human emotions, you get this mixture of the dark side and the funny side."

Such was the case with one of Debbie's pajama party guests.

"I don't think we had much to be afraid of, so telling scary stories at pajama parties was popular," said Kathy Varone, a former tennis pro from Hampton, N.H. "I'll bet kids don't do that much anymore – they use Internet games instead.

"The scariest thing I remember doing was driving through the cemetery at night and when the headlights hit a certain monument, it glowed like a ghost. It was always about the dare to do it."