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Did someone say 'boo'?

Expert says being scared is a way to deal with the unknown

Expert says being scared is a way to deal with the unknown

October 29, 2006|by JULIE E. GREENE

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Greg Golden likes scary movies - when he can find one like "Saw" that actually scares him.

The 28-year-old Clear Spring resident enjoys the excitement and suspense of such films.

Watching characters on a screen decide whether to cut off a foot so they can escape and survive - all while Golden feels his heartbeat quicken and his own body shake - is a good thrill, whereas just missing being in a car accident is the kind of scare that's just no fun, Golden says.

"There's something about having something feel dangerous but really knowing it feels safe," says Dr. John Reed, an internist and pediatrician at Smithsburg Family Medical Center.

This is why amusement park rides are popular and Halloween is a popular holiday, Reed says. The thrill of a roller coaster or a haunted house gives people a way to touch the scary parts of our lives or to demystify something scary.

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"It's sort of a way to kind of conquer fear or touch it and let the air out slowly," Reed says.

Tom Piccirilli, an author of horror fiction, including "The Dead Letters," says as much as people hate their fears, they also can't help but embrace them.

"Perhaps only on an unconscious level ... it's like probing a bad tooth. We just can't keep our minds off these things that petrify us and drive us to the edge," he wrote in an e-mail to The Herald-Mail.

Marvin Zuckerman, a psychologist and professor emeritus at University of Delaware, says, "When you're frightened with this kind of vicarious stimuli you know you're safe, so it's not a fear that's out of control."

Such enjoyment from horror movies and haunted houses is linked to a sensation-seeking trait - searching for stimuli that are arousing, intense and novel - Zuckerman says.

Zuckerman wrote about his sensation-seeking theory in the 1994 book "Behavioral Expressions and Biosocial Bases of Sensation Seeking." He expands on that later this year with "Sensation Seeking and Risky Behavior," which focuses on potentially risky lifestyle choices involving sex, drugs, reckless driving and extreme sports.

Zuckerman links the desire for sensation to the release of chemicals in the brain, particularly dopamine - a neurotransmitter released in the reward areas of the brain giving a person a feeling of intrinsic pleasure.

When people get scared, whether it's a real danger or a horror movie, the neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenaline are released in the brain.

Noradrenaline causes general arousal, and dopamine causes euphoria, Zuckerman says.

People with a low amount of the enzyme monoamine oxidase tend to be thrill seekers, Zuckerman says. This enzyme regulates the level of dopamine much the way a thermostat controls heat.

Not everyone has this trait. Some people are more cautious, preferring stability and predictability and avoiding any kind of change or novelty, Zuckerman says.

Others have this trait to the extreme, going beyond vicarious excitement to court risk by driving fast. This also could include some soldiers who, when they return home, miss the stimulation and excitement of real danger, he says.

Most people are in the middle, Zuckerman says, limiting themselves to vicarious thrills such as horror movies, haunted houses and roller coasters.

Recently, some people who went through Fright Night's Twisted Factory in the Franklin Shopping Center in Chambersburg, Pa., said they went through the scares of the haunted tour for the adrenaline rush.

The body releases both noradrenaline and adrenaline, which is a stress hormone released from the adrenal glands to help us respond to danger, Reed says.

The adrenal gland releases adrenaline into the bloodstream affecting the blood vessels and breathing tubes, whereas noradrenaline has a direct effect on nerve cells, Reed says.

The adrenaline rush they were feeling results in the heart beating faster, the pupils getting bigger and the bronchial or breathing tubes opening up to allow more oxygen in, he says. Part of the skin flushes, while in other areas blood moves away to prevent excessive bleeding.

All of this is part of the fight or flight response animals have and is the feeling people would have if they just missed being in a car accident or if someone sneaked up on them, Reed says.

So enjoy the fright.

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