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 (350)
  • 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.

  • johnd-3-bar
    10/22/2015 - 11:41 p.m.

    Fear can be fun because when we know were not actually in danger we can receive dopamine's and endorphins.

    I thought it was interesting but had nothing to do with Halloween.

  • madelinew-1-bar
    10/23/2015 - 12:36 a.m.

    Fear allows a person to feel terrified though still knowing that nothing will really happen to them. Knowing that we're not in any real danger lets us relax more, though we may not realize it. It can also help us relieve stress or anxiety. I like this article it helps up to better understand why we feel fear and how fear can sometimes help us.

  • sydneym-3-bar
    10/23/2015 - 01:28 a.m.

    Margee Kerr is a sociologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Her job is to study fear for a living. She wrote a book called "Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear." The book is about her adventures on extreme attractions around the world. Margee Kerr is trying to show people how fear is not completely negative and how it could be fun. Not only that, but her research is also on how these things can reduce stress levels. Fear can be fun because it helps you test your bravery and fear gives the such a good rush of adrenaline. I liked this article because it made me look at fear in a new perspective.

  • bartlett,alison-cas
    10/23/2015 - 07:47 a.m.

    1. Fear can be fun when you know that you aren't in danger, and that your able to enjoy the endorphins and dopamine.

    2. I really enjoyed this article, it gave me a whole new perspective on being scared.

  • jacobd-ver
    10/23/2015 - 08:53 a.m.

    I think that it is cool that how Marge Kerr studies fear for living. Its just cool how she gets to get paid for doing something that cool.

  • ellerys-1-bar
    10/23/2015 - 09:29 a.m.

    Fear, which releases dopemine in your brain, can be very exhilarating once your body figures out you aren't in any danger and you can just have fun. Being scared is thrilling and for many people, it's mainly just fun and not as scary as it would be for people not as used to that type of experience.

  • carsonb-2-bar
    10/23/2015 - 09:38 a.m.

    If a group of friends go to Knott's Scary Farm together and share the experience.

  • lizzyh-joh
    10/23/2015 - 09:50 a.m.

    It's cool that she can test fear and make her haunted house scary enough, but not to scary.

  • nevaehm-
    10/23/2015 - 01:02 p.m.

    so if you control your emotions and health you wont get scared

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