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. 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, 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."  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, 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. 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 (81)
  • tycenb-ols
    10/26/2015 - 12:52 p.m.

    I think that Kerr hit the spot on what she is talking about. I see her point in true fear or just fear that tests our will.

  • jasminpd-1-ols
    10/26/2015 - 12:53 p.m.

    Fear can be fun like when you are on a roller coaster the fear of falling is fun because you are going so fast it seems impossible. Skydiving is another example. Haunted houses are fun because they are scary but fun to see other people get scared.

  • keatonm-1-ols
    10/26/2015 - 12:54 p.m.

    I think that this is a terrible thing. Someone could get injured or scared because they got scared. if it is a scary movie its fine because you know it is a movie. Trying to scare people and make them afraid of some stuff is not ok.

  • mckaylas-1-ols
    10/26/2015 - 12:55 p.m.

    Fear can be fun, because it triggers our happiness and excitement based off of the activity.

  • daizypd-ols
    10/26/2015 - 12:57 p.m.

    Fear can be fun if you know that you aren't in danger or you let your fears go and have fun.

  • amelianaa-ols
    10/26/2015 - 12:57 p.m.

    Many fun and adventurous activities can be frightening. Jump of a bridge and relying on a thin piece of rubber can be terrifying yet exciting. So can jumping out of plane with only a big piece of cloth supporting you.

  • jacksonh-ols
    10/26/2015 - 12:57 p.m.

    Watching a really scary movie can be fun because unexpected scary things happen all of the time. Standing over a really high point can be fun too because you get too see a lot.

  • jackt-ver
    10/26/2015 - 01:15 p.m.

    I recently went to a haunted house, but I am not excited to be in a actual haunted house. Her job must be very difficult to do because most people would be scared out of their minds, but people that can stand up to ghosts, are daredevils.

  • cr2016-cla
    10/26/2015 - 02:05 p.m.

    This article wasn't that great because I easily get scared. Fear can be fun because after you'll look back at it and laugh.

  • sl2016-cla
    10/26/2015 - 02:07 p.m.

    Fear can be fun because for me when I get scared i'm sort of happy at the same time im screaming. I like this article because when your scared and you dont want to do something and then you do it you like it and you wanna do it again.

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