Why Halloween makes us scream The CN Tower's EdgeWalk in Toronto, seen in this photo, is one of the many experiences Margee Kerr features in her book "Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear." (AP Photo/The Canadian Press/ Darren Calabrese/Scarehouse )
Why Halloween makes us scream
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Margee Kerr says she has the best job in the world. She studies fear for a living and loves to scare herself as part of her research.
 
Kerr is a sociologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, and just in time for Halloween, she's written a book called "Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear."
 
The book documents Kerr's adventures around the world experiencing extreme attractions, ranging from the tallest roller coasters in Japan to the CN Tower's EdgeWalk in Toronto, where participants are tethered to the skyscraper for an outdoor walk 116 stories off the ground.
 
Kerr also works at an attraction in Pittsburgh called ScareHouse, analyzing customer responses to help keep the fright levels just right.
 
"We're trying to scare people in a way that's going to make them feel good," she said.
 
Kerr is interested in the notion that society usually regards "fear as a negative force. But there's another side to fear that's fun and fulfilling," and that's the sweet spot sought by recreational activities, whether skydiving, zip lining, roller coasters or so-called haunted houses.
 
"When we know we're not really in any physical danger, we can enjoy the endorphins and the dopamine. That response is similar to being really excited and happy," she said.
 
Her quest for the "Scream" book took her on "many, many adventures across the world, doing as many scary and thrilling things as I could. I look at it from the cultural perspective, the physiological perspective and the psychological perspective. Why do we engage with this type of material? Part of it is the natural high we get from activating the flight-or-fight response in a safe environment."
 
Kerr says the trick is to figure out what types of situations "trigger our flight or fight response. What are people afraid of, what's going to tap into the fear?"
 
For example, "we know from science that seeing the whites of people's eyes will activate the amygdala, the emotional processing center of our brain." That intense response to another being's eyes explains why scary attractions often have "dolls with big eyes or animatronics with wide-open eyes." Startling sounds, fast-moving props and other sudden visual effects also trigger instinctive responses, upping the fear factor without putting people in real danger.
 
She added that part of the draw for an extreme adventure or attraction is that "you are testing your own resilience. When you come out the other side of a scary movie or haunted house, you have accomplished something. You've tested your will. Even though we know nothing will hurt us, the self-esteem boost is real."
 
As for her own responses, she found the CN Tower EdgeWalk to be "way more terrifying than I thought it would be." Skydiving, on the other hand, was pure pleasure for Kerr.
 
Kerr says her research can have implications beyond theme parks and haunted houses by helping people understand how to tolerate stress.
 
"We're trying to find the best ways to teach people how to experience their emotions in ways that are healthy and not debilitating," she said. "When people lean into the experience and test themselves in an environment that is safe, they come to learn they can handle stress and they are stronger than they thought they were."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How can fear be fun?
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COMMENTS (26)
  • marventano,william-cas
    10/23/2015 - 07:20 a.m.

    1. Fear can produce a feeling of a thrill, that is the reason horror movie,books,and video games are successful people seek the thrill.

    2. I feel that Dr. Kerr's research seems interesting studying how people enjoy fear. However, it is obvious that people can enjoy fear for a thrill.

  • baylees-day
    10/23/2015 - 07:57 a.m.

    I found this article to be interesting because I love a good trill/scare. It makes sense that when we know we aren't in real danger, we can get that enjoyment out of the fear. I also think what Kerr did was so cool. I would love to travel the world, doing the most thrill driven rides and attractions.

  • goodridge,tyrese-cas
    10/24/2015 - 06:01 p.m.

    -Fear can be fun and thrilling when doing recreational activities such as skydiving, zip lining, haunted houses, and roller coasters because we know we are not really in any physical danger and it gives us a good feeling after testing our will pushing ourselves to do things which gives us a boost in our self esteem.

    -This article is pretty interesting to me because the study shows a fun fulfilling side of fear that makes us feel good other than fear being used as a negative force.

  • austinw-day
    10/26/2015 - 12:11 p.m.

    When it comes to the emotion labeled "fear", people have a hard time wrapping the concept that it can be a fun thing to have. But whenever you go on a rollercoaster or go through a haunted house, your body feels tense and on high alert. That releases the endorphins and dopamine, which causes you to be more active in those situations. Although this "dopamine" is more like a natural happy drug that your brain releases, and if receptors on the other side catch that natural happy-drug, you get a rush of excitement. When people feel threatened dopamine is, yes giving you a happy rush, but keeping you active. Once the treat is got, your body relaxes and dopamine keeps on a flowing giving you that "fun".

  • briannec-ste
    10/26/2015 - 04:35 p.m.

    I, being the big scared baby that I am, won't go into haunted houses and I won't watch scary movies. Because I am scared of many more things than just falling or clowns. She has guts if she is pushing and testing fear.

  • TehyaWhite-Ste
    10/27/2015 - 08:29 a.m.

    Fear can be fun because it gets your adrenaline going and that makes you all hyper and stuff. It is also fun because many people like the thrill of not knowing what's coming next.

  • ShawnaWeiser-Ste
    10/27/2015 - 03:47 p.m.

    I absolutely love anything that will make me even a little fearful, unless its paranormal things. I can not even begin to describe to you how scared I am when I watch a paranormal movie at night.

  • lucib-bag
    10/27/2015 - 10:21 p.m.

    The most interesting fear quote I read was "we're trying to scare people in a way that's fun". I like that because it gives me a different perspective on haunted houses and other scary things. Also it doesn't make her sound mean!

  • lucib-bag
    10/27/2015 - 10:26 p.m.

    Fear can be fun by taking a different perspective on the scary thing or you can do it for the thrill that comes with fear. So how ever you think of it it will reflect on how you take the fear as if OMG I'm so scared I'm going to pee my pants???? or I'm so scared I'm that I'm screaming with joy!????

  • laurend-day
    10/29/2015 - 01:01 p.m.

    I personally don't like being scared. However, I thought this article was really interesting because it gave me a clearer understanding of what is really involved in fear. I like how Margee Kerr said that when we know that there is no physical danger, the fear turns into enjoyment. I never realized how similar fear and excitmemt are. Next time I go on a roller coaster I'll remember this article, take a deep breathe, and focus on turning the fear into excitement.

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