Even the trailer of last year’s Hereditary made my heart race and palms sweat. I’m a scaredy-cat. I’m not one to take a ghost tour or visit a haunted house where the actors lick and pinch you, while trying to live up to a billing of a “psychosexual, horror-art experience.”
Meanwhile, some people love being terrified. Take Tom P. from Bayside, Queens, reviewing that aforementioned psychosexual, horror-art experience: “This is really freaky and I was genuinely scared at moments … you will do plenty of screaming and at moments wonder “Why did I do this to myself?” But when I survived I did feel a sense of pride,” he comments in his Yelp review of the Blackout haunted house.
But the science suggests that maybe I should be like Tom, and not be so afraid of getting scared.
Getting spooked doesn’t just cause shrieks, giggles and a rush of adrenaline. Being frightened can also strengthen our immune systems, lead to better mental and physical performance, and build relationships. Facing fear — in a controlled setting — could make us all feel a bit more alive, and improve our health.
Christa McIntyre, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Texas at Dallas School of Behavioral and Brain Science, says small doses of fear can good for you.
“Imagine going through life in a sterile bubble where you’re never experiencing any fear and then suddenly you’re exposed to something threatening, and you experience a sensation of fear that can be really paralyzing,” McIntyre tells Inverse. “Fear itself can be really debilitating unless you’ve had some exposure to it and developed some resilience.”
Fight or run for your life
Fear is a vital survival mechanism that has been baked into our biology since we were cavemen roaming the earth. Scientists suspect almost all humans and animals experience a “landscape of fear.” Fear keeps us on high alert, away from danger, and better able to defend against attack.
When a rotting zombie jumps out at a haunted house, or we narrowly miss getting hit by an oncoming car, panic floods our system. Our brain sends the nervous system into overdrive, triggering that familiar stress response we know as fight-or-flight.
When we detect a threat, our body floods with adrenaline. Our heart rate spikes and breathing quickens: we can pump blood and transport oxygen to our brain and muscles faster. We see sharper, hear better, and run faster when fight-or-flight impulses take effect. Glucose and fats are pushed out across our body too, providing extra energy.
If the threat persists, the brain releases cortisol — an adrenal hormone that is associated with a stress response in humans — keeping us alert and vigilant. When danger passes, adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, along with our heart rate and breathing patterns. Our brain then releases oxytocin and endorphins, the same feel-good hormones we release during exercise.
This physiological cascade is lifesaving when you are being chased or threatened, but it’s also beneficial during everyday life, McIntyre says.
“A little bit of stress can be good for performance but a lot can interfere with performance. It can differ by the individual and the thing you’re trying to accomplish,” she explains. It might be helpful if you’re a soccer goalie in the playoffs, but not so helpful if you’re trying to solve a complex math problem, she says.
Fight-or-flight doesn’t just activate during life or death situations; social situations, work deadlines and spooky activities can set it off too.
“When you go into a haunted house, it’s designed to scare you and so people jump out at you and your response is just a reflex— you scream and jump,” McIntyre says. “This is adaptive because, you know, ‘better safe than sorry.’”
Haunted houses and scary movies cause short-term or acute stress. But when fight-or-flight turns on too often, due to traumatic life events or an extremely demanding job, acute stress turns into chronic stress, which is connected to an array of deleterious health effects: anxiety, depression, and heart disease, among others.
Acute stress lasts a few minutes or hours; chronic stress lasts a few hours every day for weeks, months or even years. With constant fight-or-flight, we stay wound up like a coiled spring, and can suffer health consequences because of it.
“Chronic stress is pretty much universally seen as bad for you and for the brain,” McIntyre says. “It actually shrinks parts of the brain and kills cells in the brain, but acute stress can actually produce neurogenesis.” Neurogenesis leads to the formation and branching out of new neurons, a healthy sign like what you see with exercise, she explains.
The roller coaster cascade of fight-or-flight can be intense for the human body, but it does have some unexpected benefits. A 2018 literature review published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology describes the body’s short-term stress response as mother nature’s secret weapon to boost physiological and mental performance when facing fear.
Research shows the fight-or-flight response, fear’s best friend, actually stimulates immune activity. Short-term stress enables the immune system to better ward off infection and heal wounds. It ups the number of leukocytes, infection and disease fighting immune cells, and circulates them throughout the body. Research suggests short-term stress may also help the immune system better detect and eliminate tumor cells.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, inhibits the immune system’s ability to perform at it’s best. When a person is chronically stressed over a long period (months or years), their body’s repair and restorative capabilities are suppressed and their immunity is dysregulated.
“If we go to a scary movie, we all have the same kind of memory of this intense experience that we shared that can improve bonding.”
Facing fear together
Horror, whether it’s surviving a haunted house or going to see the latest on-screen thrill-fest, brings people closer.
“If we go to a scary movie, we all have the same kind of memory of this intense experience that we shared that can improve bonding,” McIntyre says.
When we’re scared, we band together, an impulse carried over from our prehistoric ancestors.
“In a real threatening situation, that bonding is potentially helpful and can help you to survive. It’s safety in numbers,” the neurobiologist says.
Fear and the relief of safety also prompt the release of feel-good hormones dopamine and the “love hormone,” oxytocin. Oxytocin helps us bond and build relationships, and could help us feel closer to our frightened pals. It can be rewarding to develop shared experiences and conquer our fear, McIntyre explains.
Slasher films and ghost stories mimic real-life terror, and can have some powerful psychological and neurological effects. Spooky activities can have a teleportation effect: walking through a haunted house can transport us to a graveyard, a 1920s psychiatric ward, or a basement that houses a demonic nun. They take people out of their daily lives, even for a moment, and return them with renewed confidence.
“Fear hijacks our attention. It is one way to pull us away from something that’s a real problem that we’d be ruminating over,” McIntyre says.
Terrifying events in controlled settings may even prepare us for future dangerous encounters and help us overcome fear.
“We think that acute stress actually improves our memory, which is adaptive,” McIntyre explains. “You can imagine if you encounter a bear in the cave, you should very quickly learn that that’s not a good place to go.”
Trial and error doesn’t work when facing life-threatening scares; make the same mistake twice and you’re done.
“You learn the first time to avoid that cave, and we think that adrenaline contributes to that. We know that we can administer adrenaline to humans and enhance their memory for these experiences and many different experiences.”
For some people, surviving a scare is just fun. In a fascinating 2019 study, scientists created an adults only “extreme attraction.” After a 35-minute terrifying experience where actors touched, restrained and exposed participants to electricity, 264 participants filled out a survey. They reported significantly higher mood, and felt less anxious and tired, directly after the haunted attraction. The more terrifying the better: Feeling happy afterward was related to rating the experience as highly intense and scary, writes the study’s author.
Tom, the haunted house Yelp reviewer, had an experience that echoes these findings: “All in all you WILL do/see some messed up shit that can haunt you for a while so if you are into horror movies at all you should give this a shot.”
The curious mind
Ultimately, we’re just curious about the macabre, and this is a way for us to learn about it without negative consequences, McIntyre explains.
The potential health benefits don’t mean you should run out and jump in front of a moving car, or even watch American Horror Story every night. It just means that there may be some unexpected healthy side effects to getting out of your comfort zone and engaging in fun, safe, activities that make you a little scared.
“You can kind of think about this like a muscle: If you leave it alone and don’t use it, you’ll lose it,” McIntyre explains. “If you are protected all of your life, you may not be as resilient … but of course overworking it can also cause damage.”
Taking it too far isn’t helpful, and everyone has a different relationship with fear. McIntyre’s advice? Know yourself.
See also: How nightmares could be good for you