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 (35)
  • erine-bag
    11/05/2015 - 10:44 p.m.

    My favorite quote in this artical was the second quote in the last paragraph; I like this quote because it tells how people can have more fun with fear if they understand that they are in no danger.

  • julianc-bag
    11/08/2015 - 08:59 p.m.

    My favorite quote in this quote is "We're trying to scare people in a way that makes them feel good."

  • celestinah-lam
    11/18/2015 - 01:21 p.m.

    I really liked the article. I never thought someone would actually study fear. But now I know why people study fear it is actually very interesting.

  • ryanb-
    11/30/2015 - 02:27 p.m.

    I really like this article. I thought it was pretty cool how someone would study fear. I never really thought that was something you could study.

  • emilyb2-bur
    5/01/2017 - 01:10 p.m.

    Fear can be fun when you are watching a movie or on a roller coaster because you could be having fun but still be kinda scared. In my opinion, fear can definitely be good sometimes.

  • AlyssaW-hol
    11/02/2018 - 11:50 a.m.

    Fear releases dopamine and other "feel-good" chemicals to brain this was makes it fun.

  • RyanL-lam
    11/07/2019 - 09:28 a.m.

    I've always wondered what made Horror attractions so popular and it was really interesting to read about this topic.

  • JosephH-lam1
    11/07/2019 - 10:23 a.m.

    1. Fear can be fun by giving you a feeling of surprise and thrill. That's why people voluntarily read horror movies, books, and video games.

  • GiovanniB-lam
    11/07/2019 - 10:33 a.m.

    This is a good article but for a fact, I know that movies and videos are scarier than books because you are seeing the object in front of you. A book can get you nervous and can stick in your head because of the details but with movies, the scary object is right in front of you and you can see it there. Your brain and eyes see the image.

  • EthanS-lam1
    11/07/2019 - 11:38 a.m.

    Very nice, I love finding out how their are two types of being scared. And I didn't know that their was a fun type of scared.

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