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.  She 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. They range 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. She analyzes 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."  That's the sweet spot sought by recreational activities, she said.  Whether it's 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 adventures across the world. She was "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."  That comes from activating our 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."  That is 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. They increase 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. It can help 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 (338)
  • darianv-3-bar
    10/22/2015 - 08:02 p.m.

    When you know you're not really in any physical danger, you can enjoy the endorphins and the dopamine. That makes you feel really excited and happy,which is fun. i thought this article was really interesting because fear seems like the complete opposite of fun and its hard to picture them as one thing.

    • loganb-ree
      10/30/2015 - 12:12 p.m.

      true

  • sofiat-4-bar
    10/22/2015 - 08:23 p.m.

    Fear can be very very fun, if you know your in a controled invironment thats why when most people go into haunted houses they arn't as scared because they know they are in a controled envorenment and it is a manmade atmosphere.

  • annabel1226-yyca
    10/22/2015 - 08:47 p.m.

    I never knew that people study fear for living, I think it is cool. Also, how does scaring people make that people happy. I think it is wrong, that people feelings will get worse. If I were that person I would cry. I would cry because I don't like people scaring me for purpose. I think they shouldn't scare people. I think they should teach them to overcome their fear. How does Margee Kerr earn money? I think it is impossible to earn money by researching scaring people. I hope they fix what I was saying in this comment.

  • jennaw-1-bar
    10/22/2015 - 09:24 p.m.

    Fear can be fun if it is in a situation in which the fear can not hurt you but it can scare you. Something interesting/surprising from this article is that fear can create the same feeling of excitement or thrill.

  • simonak-3-bar
    10/22/2015 - 09:36 p.m.

    Fear can be fun because you can get an adrenaline rush and it would make you feel excited and happy rather than scared.
    I chose this article because Halloween is coming up and that word caught my eye so I wanted to read the article.

  • ryan0420-yyca
    10/22/2015 - 09:52 p.m.

    That is some scary stuff. I think that if I had to walk on a building and fall i would faint. Also I wouldn't take the job because I think that it is not a good idea to jump of cliffs and go into haunted houses because it is like getting gusbumps every day. Also You cant see the people getting scared because you are scared also.

  • ericw-6-bar
    10/22/2015 - 10:19 p.m.

    People should try to conquer their fears to they can learn to enjoy certain things they couldnt while staying terrified of something harmless if something really can hurt you a fight or flight response can save you from disaster.

  • caymanm-2-bar
    10/22/2015 - 10:23 p.m.

    Fear can be fun if you know that you are in an area where it is safe and their is no danger. " When where not in any physical danger, we can enjoy the endorphins and the dopamine," she said. I thought it was weird that being scared can make someone happy.

  • ryanr-ver
    10/22/2015 - 10:23 p.m.

    It was very interesting to learn about fear. I thought it was very true that we get a self-esteem boost from horror. I had never heard it stated like that before and it was reassuring to know that other people feel the same way.

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