The season of goblins, ghouls and ghosts is upon us. And that means pop-up zombies in the neighbor’s yard, haunted corn mazes and horror film festivals.
And we love it — the scarier, the better. Why is that? Why is it so much fun to be spooked?
Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear and is the author of “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear,” says the kind of fear we might experience around Halloween by visiting a haunted house attraction or watching a horror movie can stimulate us and be pleasurable.
“For one thing, that kind of fear allows us to ignore real-life worries,” Kerr says. “We measured brain waves of people before and after they navigated ScareHouse, Pittsburgh’s haunted attraction,” she says. “It turned out that their moods had improved significantly when they came out.
“The fear had made them forget about bills, grocery lists, the future. So that kind of fear is a good thing. And even those of us who don’t savor the startle of the macabre get caught up in the spooky nostalgia of Halloween, triggered by walking down foggy paths, rustling leaves underfoot, spiderwebs and jack-o’-lanterns everywhere, and kids dressed as clowns, witches and pirates.”
She acknowledges that usually it is bad for us when we are scared.
“Our bodies’ well-developed threat-response system lets us know something isn’t quite right and prepares us to run or fight,” she says. “This triggers a chemical cascade of adrenaline, endorphins and such. But that also happens when we’re happy, excited and surprised. So what’s important is the kind of spin — negative or positive — that we put on an experience.
“Being lost in the woods alone with no help in sight — bad. Being scared lost in a haunted house with your friends and professionals nearby, ready to whisk you out of danger — good.”
Kerr herself is a thrill seeker. When she isn’t teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, she travels the world looking for daredevil adventures, such as the CN Tower’s EdgeWalk in Toronto, which involves an outdoor walk while tethered to a skyscraper 116 stories off the ground.
She says her love affair with fear began early. A ride on the Comet, Hersheypark’s oldest roller coaster, at age 11, and an encounter with a faux corpse at a fair in Maryland got her hooked.
Some get close to fear by embracing the supernatural.
Karen Schultze, of Intercourse, for example, is an interfaith minister and spiritual coach who loves Halloween.
She says she had a close encounter with a spirit.
“Both skeptics and sensitives will have experiences as the veil is thinned between here and the other side close to All Saints Day,” she says. “I actually enjoy that, but I must admit to abject fear while house hunting a few years ago. “I was in an old house, maybe early 1900s, and as I was walking upstairs, a woman suddenly grabbed my throat and hissed, ‘Get out of my house.’ I ran. She obviously didn’t want anybody to buy that house. I presume she was an early owner.”
Others seek out fear by searching for scary books and movies.
Karyn Beltle, director of Manheim Township Public Library, says that as a child she tended to stay away from scary things.
“I had a vivid imagination and scared myself so much that I leaned toward ‘safe’ reading,” she says. “Today, I do enjoy suspense like Edgar Allen Poe, Agatha Christie and Ruth Ware, but I still stay away from true horror.
“One of my co-workers says she has enjoyed it since childhood because it is a manageable dose of fear. Another says that it’s fun to push yourself to the edge of fear and. be able to laugh at your reaction to it. And our children’s librarian, Karin Rezendes, says horror stories tend to stay with us even when we grow up, like “Goosebumps” by R.I Stines, which I’d agree with since they are the only ‘scary’ books I read that I have good memories of.”
Sharon Shuman, a retired Lancaster County school librarian, says that Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot,” which is about vampires, is her favorite scary book, but she also loves to read Graham Masterton, especially his book “The Djinn.”
As a child she saw the fright film “Creature from the Black Lagoon” with her parents.
“I had to promise my dad not to have nightmares,” she says. “I didn’t, but my mom did. I think I liked being scared at a movie because I knew I was perfectly safe. But I have to say they don’t scare me much these days. Other things come to mind, like the serial killer who (killed) 93 women or the threat of nuclear war.”