Why do we like to be scared? Some of us do, anyway! Let’s take a look at the science of fear, define ‘what is fear,’ and see why some of us like to be scared!
WHAT IS FEAR?
This chart made me curious about the science of fear. Since the pandemic, there’s been an explosion in the popularity of the horror genre. (see more of Bo McCready’s amazing data compilations here)
This led me to the question: Why do we like to be scared?
Yes, I snuck in a photo of my book cover in the slide show above, which is not scary but my book, Chemical Reactions (amazon affiliate link here) does have experiments that explode. That counts!
Is fear sweaty palms, clenched teeth, dilated pupils, or an increased heart rate? Is it a high-pitched scream?
Those are reactions to fear, not fear itself.
Let’s begin with an exploration of fear. So, what is fear?
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE'RE SCARED?
No, not the sweaty palms part. The why we have sweaty palms –aka science behind fear part.
Fear evolved as a stress response. Also known as fight or flight.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE STRESS RESPONSE AKA FIGHT OR FLIGHT
SPEEDY QUICK RECAP OF THE AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
THE SCIENCE OF FEAR IS EFFICIENT!
WHY DO WE LIKE TO BE SCARED? (excluding Louie)
Fortunately, in today’s world, real danger is not nearly the same as it was a millennia ago.
That doesn’t mean we’ve lost our ability to trigger the fight or flight response.
Our fight or flight response can now be activated from psychological or mental stress. (If you have too much stress in your life, here are a few tips to calm yourself.)
So why do we like to be scared?
I’m referring to voluntarily engaging in fearful activities. The recreational-fear phenomenon.
This includes a range of activities, from a toddler playfully being chased by a parent, to reading a scary book, watching horror films, extreme sports, or voluntarily going to a haunted house.
You’re now saying to yourself, of course, fear and enjoyment can co-exist because otherwise, Stephen King would still be working in a laundromat.
But why? Why can fear and enjoyment co-exist?
We need to look deeper at the science of fear.
COGNITIVE PROCESSING AND FRIGHT OR HOW WE PERCEIVE THE FEAR
Okay so now we know the answer to the question ‘what is fear’ and all about the science of fear. And we can understand why some of us like to be scared.
Everyone is born with different personalities and temperaments and has had different life experiences. All these factors contribute to our perception of fear. My sister likes nothing better than watching a horror movie & my husband is a Stephen King fan. I couldn’t finish It but I do love milder horror books.
HORROR BOOKS FOR MIDDLE SCHOOL
Speaking of books! Let’s talk horror books for middle school.
This is in line with the theory that fiction provides vicarious experiences through which people can safely simulate a wide range of encounters that may help them prepare to deal with incidents that could arise later in life.
Kids included!! Studies show how exposure to frightening fiction allows school-age kids to practice effective coping strategies that can be beneficial in real-world situations.
SCARY BOOKS FOR MIDDLE SCHOOLERS
The distance a scary book affords gives kids (and adults) an avenue to grapple with complexity & use their imagination to consider different ways of managing social challenges.
What a great way to discuss complex concepts w/ your kids or grandkids! Read them a scary book. It’s safer than leaving them in the woods overnight.
I wanted to include five horror books for middle school…and for their parents, in my science of fear post!
THE NEST by JOHN KLASSSEN
For some kids summer is a sun-soaked season of fun. But for Steve, it’s just another season of worries. Worries about his sick newborn baby brother who is fighting to survive, worries about his parents who are struggling to cope, even worries about the wasp’s nest looming ominously from the eaves. So when a mysterious wasp queen invades his dreams, offering to “fix” the baby, Steve thinks his prayers have been answered.
All he has to do is say “Yes.” But “yes” is a powerful word. It is also a dangerous one. And once it is uttered, can it be taken back?
While the other world and antagonist in The Nest are strange, they are also relatively simple and straightforward. Steve’s parents are without question on his side, just preoccupied.
I would recommend this horror book for middle schoolers to adults and teens. The spookiness builds slowly, but it remains straightforward. This would be a great one to discuss strategies about how to say no!
SMALL SPACES by KATHERINE ARDEN (bonus: this is a series!)
After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie only finds solace in books. So when she happens upon a crazed woman at the river threatening to throw a book into the water, Ollie doesn’t think—she just acts, stealing the book and running away.
As she begins to read the slender volume, Ollie discovers a chilling story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who both loved her, and a peculiar deal made with “the smiling man,” a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price.
Ollie is captivated by the tale until her school trip the next day to Smoke Hollow, a local farm with a haunting history all its own. There she stumbles upon the graves of the very people she’s been reading about.
Could it be the story about the smiling man is true? Ollie doesn’t have too long to think about the answer to that. On the way home, the school bus breaks down, sending their teacher back to the farm for help. But the strange bus driver has some advice for the kids left behind in his care: “Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.” Nightfall is, indeed, fast descending when Ollie’s previously broken digital wristwatch, a keepsake reminder of better times, begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN.
Fight or flight, anyone?
My one-word message is: READ THIS BOOK. (Hm, that’s three words)
THE NIGHT GARDENER by JONATHAN AUXIER
Storytelling and the secret desires of the heart wind together in this atmospheric novel that doubles as a ghost tale. Irish immigrants to England, Molly and Kip make their way to the Windsor house in search of employment.
The great house stands in the shadow of a menacing tree, which locals speak of only in fearful whispers. Despite her young age and the warnings of a local storyteller, Molly uses the power of her own words to secure work, but soon realizes that all is not right in the house.
Constance, Bertrand, Penny, and Alistair Windsor each struggle with personal demons, and strange footprints appear at night. A malevolent spirit, the Night Gardener, haunts the estate, dooming its inhabitants with foul dreams while the tree grants wishes to entrap the recipients. Molly and Kip must face their own dark secrets to release the Gardener’s hold and end his evil enchantments.
Sure there are bad guys and ghosts, but the predictability keeps the scare factor in check. This scary book for middle schoolers reads like a classic fairy tale. Louie loves fairy tales and fantasy. A few more recommendations here.
THIRTEENS by KATE ALICE MARSHALL
Twelve-year-old Eleanor has just moved to Eden Eld to live with her aunt and uncle after her mother was killed in a fire. Her birthday, which falls on Halloween, is just around the corner, and she hopes that this year will be a fresh start at a new life.
But then one morning, an ancient grandfather clock counting down thirteen hours appears outside of her bedroom. And then she spots a large black dog with glowing red eyes prowling the grounds of her school. A book of fairytales she’s never heard of almost willingly drops in front of her, as if asking to be read. Something is wrong in the town of Eden Eld.
Eleanor and her new classmates, Pip and Otto, are the only ones who see these “wrong things,” and they also all happen to share a Halloween birthday. Bonded by these odd similarities, the trio uncovers a centuries-old pact the town has with a mysterious figure known as Mr. January: every thirteen years, three thirteen-year-olds disappear, sacrificed in exchange for the town’s unending good fortune.
This Halloween, Mr. January is back to collect his payment, and Eleanor, Pip, and Otto are to be his next offering…unless they can break the curse before the clock strikes thirteen.
Okay, I admit that I haven’t read this horror book for middle school yet but I want to. It sounds deliciously creepy with a trio of friends, time running out, and a curse. Who doesn’t love a curse?
SPIRIT HUNTERS by ELLEN OH (another series!)
Harper doesn’t trust her new home from the moment she steps inside, and the rumors are that the Raine family’s new house is haunted. Harper isn’t sure she believes those rumors, until her younger brother, Michael, starts acting strangely.
The whole atmosphere gives Harper a sense of déjà vu, but she can’t remember why. She knows that the memories she’s blocking will help make sense of her brother’s behavior and the strange and threatening sensations she feels in this house, but will she be able to put the pieces together in time?
“Even more impressive than the shiver factor is the way the author skillfully uses the compelling premise to present a strong, consistent message of not rejecting what you don’t understand.” — Booklist (starred review)
Aha! In spite of Book List’s use of double negatives, you can utilize this scary book for middle schoolers to enjoy being scared, practice coping strategies w/ your kids or grandkids, & help them to learn life lessons from the safety of the couch.
WHY DO WE LIKE TO BE SCARED?
Now you can answer the question ‘what is fear’ & know all about the science of fear!
Tell me, do you enjoy horror films and books?
I prefer horror books for middle school to horror books for adults.
Do any of these scary books for middle schoolers appeal to you?
Do you like graveyards? You’ll notice my photos are all taken during broad daylight! (Just saying.)
This is a great post. We are familiar with the influence the limbic system has on people. Fear has thousands of years of evolution to back up why we get scared. Now that we do not have tigers or lions roaming behind every bush, we redirect our fear to those things that might produce an adrenaline response. Thank you for sharing this!
Exactly! Your comment gives me an adrenaline bump of happiness. That’s the topic for another post. Thanks!
That’s great, and that sounds great. You’re welcome!
Interesting thoughts about our liking of being scared,
Fear is interesting… as long as we’re not afraid while we investigate. ha! Thanks so much!
I’m with Louie. Not a big fan of fright but Small Spaces sounds great! Thanks for the interesting explanation about fear!
Let me know what you think of Small Spaces! Thanks!
This is so cool that the same hormones which give us pleasure, keep us alive. (by reacting to danger) I’d love it if you’d investigate more of the seven universal emotions! Thank you.
What a great idea! I’ll need to look into that. Thank you.
Interesting post about fear.I believe one of the reasons why some of us like to feel scared is because we treat fear as a challenge. Most of us not sure what we are capable of. But when you face your fear, you’ll like… wow! I made it!
You sound as if you’re naturally brave. Good for you to face your fears! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Amazing post as usual. Fun science, fun pictures, fun book reviews and great writing. If I was a science teacher, I would use your posts in my lesson plan. A great educational freebie.
Educational freebie! What a fun way to look at my blog. Thanks, Eva.
Fear is a very interesting response on so many levels, it has its uses and also it has its problems but knowing the science behind it definitely makes me feel less worried about it (if that makes sense). Thanks for sharing this post, and lovely Louie!
I agree. I think focusing on how fear affects us, helps us to control our panic. Great point, thank you! Louie thanks you, too.
This was such an interesting read! I definitely enjoy a scary story and I think you’re right in saying that it can be beneficial in real world situations! I really love the sound of Small Spaces too, it sounds super creepy and like something I’d really enjoy. Thanks for sharing x
Super creepy is fun from the safety of our family rooms! I’m happy that you agree. Thank you!
I watched a documentary about a natural disaster in Portugal and they documented another reason to being overwhelmed by fear, and that’s how people become unable to do anything
Frozen by fear! That is an interesting –and terrifying phenomenon. In the interest of keeping my posts shorter, I didn’t delve into the primitive brain response of ‘playing dead’ but here’s a study that discusses the physiology behind freezing instead of fleeing! https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24639484/
And here’s one that talks about how fearful memories can hijack the fight or flight cascade.
I appreciate you pointing this out. Thank you.
Great post. I guess we like to be scared because it’s part of our evolution. aka survival of the fittest. It keeps us alive
Survival of the fittest. Or fastest! ha! Great point, thank you.
This is such an interesting read Sue! When it comes to deciding between fight or flight, I freeze. I’m not good with either, which is probably why I panic so much :/
Another person mentioned the same issue! I promised myself that I’d keep my 2022 posts a little less dense, but if you’re curious I’ve pasted links to two articles that discuss the ‘playing dead’ response. One states that the more primitive parts of our brain take over. The next talks about how painful memories can hijack our fight or flight response.
Whatever the reason, you’re not alone! Thank you for mentioning that lovely third option intertwined with fight or flight. (not!)
Great post as usual. My only fear is what you’re going to plant in your yard next spring so that you don’t have to look at my patio. I will have you know I was a seven minute miler in the 5K up until my 50s. inside joke!🦹♂️🏃
A seven-minute miler? Impressive! So does that put you in the flight category with me? ha! Thanks, Mike!
I used to like telling ghost stories and I’ve watched a few horror films. The older I get, the less I like them. My daughter, as a teen, worked as a “monster” in a local haunted house attraction. She loved all things horror. Once she became a mother, she couldn’t read or watch anything scary.
Fear and stress account for some 90% of illnesses which is another reason I try to avoid it.
Your blog was fascinating, though, and thanks for sharing.
No reason for you to read scary books, Amy! I’ve never been a hard core fan, but I do see the merits of reading fairy tales, ghost stories, and the like to our kids, as long as the communication lines stay open for discussion! I hope I didn’t stir up any unpleasant memories. Thanks so much!
This post is fascinating to me! I’m a huge horror junkie and always wondered why some of us enjoy being scared!
Fantastic! You’re a horror junkie. I’m glad that I scratched your knowledge itch! Thanks!
Another fabulous post! I’m a scaredy cat just like Louie (can canines be scaredy cats?) But many of my friends love to be scared and after reading your post I understand why. Thank you!
I wonder if canines can be scaredy cats? (The term’s origin is unclear but it could stem from ‘fraidy cat) Otoh, why not! You and Louie can read a different genre! Louie loves historical fiction! Thanks so much.
Great post! I know all about fight or flight, given my high levels of anxiety!
In stressful situations, such as job interviews or difficult work situations, I experienced these symptoms.
Interestingly, I will now watch Most Haunted with my hubby. Something I never would have agreed to before. So I’m on the list of people scaring themselves.
Ah, I understand those anxiety levels all too well. Perhaps that’s why I wanted to write about fear. I find that I do far better with frightening content if I have a talk w/ myself first. Likewise w/ anxiety-provoking situations. It doesn’t always work. I’m a work-in-progress. However, it sounds as if you’ve taken control of your frontal cortex! Kudos. And thanks.
Thank you for sharing this post Sue, I really enjoyed this insight 🙂
You’re welcome! Thanks for stopping by!
I’ll admit, I’ve never given much thought about fear before. I know I feel fear at times and that it’s natural to do so, but never really knew much more about it. I used to seek out fear when I was younger, watching as many horror movies as I could find, and in a way desensitized myself to a lot of scary things. Graveyards don’t bother me one bit. I used to work at a funeral home so I spent a lot of time at graveyards for my job.
You worked at a funeral home! That’s unique and interesting. It’s intriguing that you don’t find fear as exciting as when you were younger. Thanks so much for weighing in!
This was really informative and interesting as always. I love horror books but I am not a big fan of watching horror movies. I find them far less scarier than the books. I have a vivid imagination and I can create scary images in my mind out of what I read.
We all enjoy feeling afraid when we already know that we are not in actual danger 🙂
I agree, my imagination takes off when I read adult horror, far more than when watching film adaptations. I’m happy that you found my post informative and interesting! Thanks, Eri!
I’m not a horror fan AT ALL, but I enjoyed learning more about the fight vs. flight responses. It’s interesting when you realise how it applies to animals as well – prey vs. predators, for example. And yes, I’d only visit graveyards in daylight too!
We can visit the graveyards together… during the day! ha! Thanks so much, Lisa!
This is such an interesting post! While some seek out opportunities to get scared, I am the opposite and avoid it whenever possible. I enjoy reading thrillers, but do avoid watching them on film. Great review on the fight/flight response too! Thanks for sharing.
It sounds as if you and I are closely aligned, though you could be a little spicier than me with your reading material? I’m happy that you liked the fight or flight recap! Thanks so much.
Oh this was such a cool read. I didn’t think too much about the actual science behind fear so thank you so much for sharing all this good info!
I’m happy that you found this post a cool read! Thank you so much!
This is such a interesting post. I’ve never looked at fear like this! I learnt so much from this post, it’s very educational. Thank you so much for sharing lovely Xo
Elle – ellegracedeveson.com
How fantastic that you picked up a few facts! Thank you so much!
As always – a very nice and interesting post! I like that you are explaining everything in a ”normal people language” and it’s very easy to understand also those chemical processes and everything around that. Thank you a lot! ♥
That’s my objective, to make sense of science. Thank you for the lovely compliment! And thanks for stopping by!
This was really interesting! I’m very familiar with fight or flight, having had an almost decade long anxiety disorder in the past (it was all I ever heard) but despite the fact I’ve had experience with anxiety, I actually really like being scared, especially when it comes to films and books etc!
I’m sorry to hear about your struggles with anxiety, Jenny. I hope you’re managing better now. How interesting that you enjoy that same bump when watching films or reading! Thank you so much for stopping by!