AUSTIN (KXAN) — From ghouls and goblins to Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, Halloween is all about the things that terrify us. Why do we spend one night a year trying to scare the crap out of ourselves? We decided to delve into the science of fear and find out.
“Wow, what am I afraid of? Oh, you know, I don’t, I don’t like bugs,” said Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. Markman said fear is the emotion that helps us deal with threats.
“There is a threat outside. I haven’t gotten away from it. So I felt fear or anxiety or stress,” Markman said, adding that it’s actually nice to feel that emotion when we’re in a safe space.
While some fears are evolutionary, others are learned.
“We certainly learn a lot of fears. We learn them from the people around us. We often take on fears that our parents or our peers have.”
Early experiences can also influence what you fear. If you were bitten by a dog as a child, you may be afraid of dogs. If you are being chased by a clown who lives in the sewers, you may be afraid of clowns.
A feeling of fear
When we experience fear, our bodies respond in several biological ways.
“If you’re walking in your house at night, in the middle of the night, and it’s dark, and you hear a strange noise, what do you do? We all freeze for a second, right?” said Michael Drew, associate professor of neurology at UT Austin.
“There’s a constellation of hormonal, neural, behavioral cognitive responses that kind of happen all at once.”
According to Drew, the amygdala in our brain is responsible for controlling our fear response. It prepares us to fight or flee, but also to scare off potential threats.
“When we had ancestors who were hairier, straight hair actually made us look bigger,” Drew said.
These sensations and biological changes, Drew said, also happen when we fall in love. Maybe that’s why we choose dates to watch scary movies.
Searching for things that go bump in the night
Markman said we expose ourselves to fear for several reasons, not just biological feedback. “It’s actually nice to be in a situation where you can experience that emotion while knowing you’re in a safe environment.”
One reason is as a learning tool. We prepare for a threatening situation so that when we actually face it, we are ready to react. Markman said athletes sometimes do this.
“Sometimes there will be difficult situations and you will have to perform adequately when there is a potential threat.”
Healthy fears vs. unhealthy fears
Drew said that for the most part, fear is healthy. Most of the things we fear—bugs, snakes, heights—are natural and were dangerous to early man. These things can be real dangers.
However, sometimes we can react to things that are not actual threats: exams, open spaces and pantomimes. Drew studies unhealthy fears and finds ways to suppress them before they harm our daily lives.
“If your fear of snakes prevents you from leaving the house, doesn’t it, or prevents you from engaging in activities that you want to participate in, then that’s maladaptive. And you might want to get treatment.
Halloween and Fear: An Exploration of Death
Markman said Halloween is associated with one fear more than any other: DEATH!
“Here we are entering the shorter days of the year. And so, and so, what we’re doing is recognizing the growing darkness by tweaking death a bit. Markman said that adding mock death during this time is part of how we deal with it.
“At some point we’re going to deal with our own death,” Markman said. “Having a way to talk about it, even when we start talking about it jokingly, is healthy.”