Why do we like scary stories? We are almost at Halloween, and being in the Halloween spirit, my daughter who is 11 has been asking to watch “scary” movies. Our Halloween tradition of watching Nightmare Before Christmas has become too “babyish” for her.
So it got me thinking, why do we like scary stories? If you’re old enough to remember, horror movies were THE thing to be into in the 80s (and even into the 90s); more recently, maybe Walking Dead or Stranger Things had you glued to your TV. I, myself, have been one of those people, and I also used to love a good detective murder story (anyone remember Forensic Files?). I guess “Murder” podcasts are now the "it" (Oops - did I just make you think of Pennywise the Clown?) thing, according to my younger friends). But scary stories have very likely been with us since our beginnings as a social species.
Why is that? Well, we could say that some are cautionary, to teach children what not to do (Like - if you see a house made of candy, don't eat it! A good lesson about things that appear free, secretly carrying a bigger price tag, but I digress). That just doesn’t seem to explain it, though. People want to get scared. For fun.
We hear a lot that when your body goes into stress mode (a.k.a. Fight or Flight / Sympathetic Nervous System Mode) that it doesn’t know the difference between a real threat or a saber tooth tiger (to use the now-cliché example). But what do we actually mean when we say that? Is the body dumb? Are we honestly saying that a work deadline is treated the same as a life-threatening event? It doesn’t know that our life is not really in danger? Come on, your body is amazing – as you read this, there are countless things your body is doing and perceiving right now about which you have no awareness. The body has its own miraculous intelligence, we know this! Maybe this saber tooth tiger analogy over-simplifies things a bit?
Psychologists and other scientists have discovered that when we get scared from something like a movie or story, the body has an awareness that it is in a ‘safe’ or controlled environment. We get a rush of adrenaline and a release of endorphins and dopamine as our suspense mounts, all the while subconsciously knowing there is no real risk. As fear subsides, we enjoy a euphoric feeling as a result of the chemical hit and a satisfying sense of well-being. Win-win, right?
That begs the question, are we seeking fear because of the subsequent rush of feel-good chemicals? What is driving us to seek out scary things? And why? Is it just because we want to get that dopamine hit? Is it merely the addictive nature of those feel-good sensations? Maybe, but I think there’s more to the story.
Mulling this over, I got to thinking about hormetic stressors. A hormetic stressor is a short burst of stress that can actually trigger a cascade of beneficial processes in the body. A hormetic stressor can promote stress resilience, clear out damaged cells (i.e. autophagy – the Pac-Man like action of cellular clean up), repair DNA, reduce oxidative stress & inflammation, produce new mitochondria (hello increased energy), support detoxification, improve blood sugar regulation, and even reduce the risk of cancer. Some examples include: intermittent fasting, cold exposure, heat exposure, exercise (especially high-intensity interval training, or HIIT), breathing exercises, and even some foods! The key is the short burst of stress, followed by relief and recovery.
Are our bodies driving us to seek these experiences because it knows the benefits that will come along for the ride? I certainly think it's a very strong possibility, and to my mind yet more evidence of just how much power and wisdom we each have at our disposal. Our bodies know what they need and are very good at coaxing us toward those things - no easy task when our modern lifestyle encourages us to silence the body's signals and tune out rather than in. So this Halloween, take a minute to thank your body for lookin' out for you, and feel free to indulge in a little fun-fear(Vitamin F) and your body might thank you back!