The thrill of scary movies and haunted houses

Close up of lit up jack-o-laternsWatching scary movies and visiting haunted houses might be some of horror fans’ favorite things. While Halloween is the perfect time of year to indulge in these activities, loving horror films and haunted houses is not limited to October. A Baylor College of Medicine psychologist explains why some enjoy partaking in horror entertainment.

“These activities are stimulation-seeking in a relatively safe context because these things aren’t real. They can introduce some element of excitement but in a safe, relatively controlled fashion,” said Dr. Eric Storch, professor and vice chair of psychology in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor.

There are different parts of the brain that are associated with pleasure-seeking with the orbitofrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens being particularly linked. Sensation-seeking, in part, is a jolt of adrenaline or excitement that takes place when people experience novel, intensive and exciting experiences. When people watch scary movies or visit haunted houses, they may be seeking out stimulation that does not evoke fear but rather brings on some sort of excitement or pleasure. Engaging in horror films can result in an adrenaline rush in a controlled environment. This is a different experience than someone who is fearful of these activities.

“Individuals that experience fear around these things experience a strong fight or flight response,” he said. “They are behaviorally responding by either not going into these situations or pulling away from them in some sort of manner. It’s not a problem to avoid scary movies or haunted houses at all; but, as always, when fears become interfering or impairing it is important to talk with a doctor or therapist about options for help.”

Gradual and systematic exposure to feared triggers – either done by oneself or together with a therapist – can be beneficial when the fear causes inability to do things that one might normally enjoy. One might have a fear of people in costumes and even though they want to go out on Halloween, their fear impairs them from doing so. Engaging in exposure activities can help address those fears in order to live a value-driven lifestyle.

By Homa Warren

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