My November 1st column is being published on October 31st because I love Halloween. It’s my favorite day to do scary things. We all know that Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) has it’s roots in religious tradition but really for me it’s just an excuse to watch old, black & white, horror movies and wonder if any ghosts haunt about.
Since this is a science-related column I had to consider the scientific basis for why we like to be scared. Seeking scary experiences is really counter intuitive. Being scared is a fear response and fear is how our ancestors survived attacks by predators. It’s that orienting-to-danger response we make when our system is flooded with adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine due to a sudden loud noise or movement.
So fear. Let me tell you about my first ride on a roller coaster. I was a sheltered child and did not ride a roller coaster until I was a teen. I went to the seaside amusement park in Santa Cruz, California with friends and they convinced me to ride the roller coaster. When that old, creaky train went over the first big drop, I thought I was going to die for sure. And at every subsequent sharp turn and sudden drop, I was sure the train was going to fly off the tracks and I’d die again. At the end, I was totally elated and immediately ran to get in line to do it again.
That was sort of a one-trial conditioned learning experience for me. So, we humans may be unique in that we learn to enjoy the high of stimulation created by that rush of adrenaline. As an aside, I came across an early, and totally unethical, study on conditioned fear response that is worth checking out. See Watson & Rayner (1920) in the references.
The best example of Halloween related fear response that captured both “real concerns about possible bad things happening” and the “adrenaline rush of thrill seeking” was Orson Wells’ 1938 radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’ story, The War of the Worlds. It was a radio play done as a series of news stories about an invasion from outer space and many people thought it was real. Actual panic ensued, but as Orson Wells said at the end of the broadcast…
“This is Orson Wells, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business.”
“So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian… it’s Hallowe’en.”
References and Sources Mentioned
- All Hallow’s Eve, Catholic Education Resource Center.
- What is Adrenaline?, Home Health Network.
- Roediger, H.L. & Arnold, K.M., The One-Trial Learning Controversy and Its Aftermath: Remembering Rock (1957), Am J Psychol, 2012 Summer; 125(2): 127–143.
- Watson, J.B. & Rayner, R., Conditioned emotional reactions, Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1920, 3 (1): 1–14.
- Orson Wells, sign off, War of the Worlds, Mercury Theater on the Air, Columbia Broadcasting System, October 30, 1938.
- Adolphs, R., The Biology of Fear, Current Biology, 1-23-2013, 23(2), R79-R93.
- Steimer, T., The biology of fear and anxiety-related behaviors, Dialogues Clin Neurosci, 2002 Sep; 4(3): 231–249.
- Dwyer, D., 5 Reasons We Enjoy Being Scared, Psychology Today, 10-19-2018.