The Science Of Fear

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_Louie thinks a ghost is going to rise up and grab him
Louie is firmly in the, 'I don't like being scared' category!

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)

Explosion in Horror films
Explosion of horror films...and my mess up w/ the title.

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?

What is Fear_dracula
Avert your eyes if Dracula is too scary!

Those are reactions to fear, not fear itself. 

Let’s begin with an exploration of fear. So, what is fear?

WHAT IS FEAR?

An unpleasant emotion caused by being aware of danger

fear definition

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. 

Subscribe to our newsletter_Louie
Excuse me. I do not have sweaty palms. I don't even sweat.
You know about 'fight or flight.' It's the physical response to fear, triggered by the body’s sympathetic nervous system.
Back in the caveman days, danger was all around us
We had to fight –or run from predators.
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'Fight-or-flight' evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling people & other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations.
The carefully orchestrated yet near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses helps someone to fight the threat off or flee to safety.
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THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE STRESS RESPONSE AKA FIGHT OR FLIGHT

The stress response begins in the brain
(Naturally)
When someone confronts an oncoming car or other danger, the eyes or ears (or both) send the info to the amygdala
The amygdala interprets the images and sounds
When the amygdala perceives danger, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus is a command center.
The hypothalamus communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system
ANS
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SPEEDY QUICK RECAP OF THE AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM

THE ANS
The autonomic nervous system has two components, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) & the parasympathetic nervous system. (PSNS)
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) functions like a gas pedal in a car.
I ONLY WISH THIS WAS MY CAR
THE SNS triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers.
The PSNS system acts like a brake.
It promotes the "rest & digest" response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.
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THE SCIENCE OF FEAR IS EFFICIENT!

BACK TO THE HYPOTHALAMUS
The hypothalamus activates the SNS by sending signals through nerves to the adrenal glands.
The adrenal glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream.
NOW we get those symptoms of fear.
Which also help us to escape or take on the threat......
The ANS is so efficient that the amygdala & hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain's visual centers have had a chance to fully process what is happening.
That's why people are able to jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they're doing.
Heart rate & BP increase to pump blood where it's needed, rapid breathing to get oxygen where it needs to go, small airways open to take in the extra O2, sight & hearing become sharper, glucose & fat flood the bloodstream for energy.
As the initial surge of epinephrine subsides, the hypothalamus activates the second component of the stress response system — known as the HPA axis
If the brain continues to perceive something as dangerous, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH)
Yet another cascade keeps the gas pedal pressed down.
CRH triggers ACTH which releases cortisol
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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.)

Why Do We Like to Be Scared_Sue Berk Koch
Why do we like to be scared?

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.

The Science of Fear
EXTREME SPORTS!

Fear and enjoyment can co-exist in recreational horror!

Playing w Fear

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

The frontal lobe or thinking part of our brains weighs in on the fear response, too.
What is cognition?
IMAGINE THIS...
You’re in dark woods & something jumps out at you.
Your brain has no clue if it’s your friend playing a trick on you or if a wolf pack is about to attack.
For great MG books about animals, click here
Because we like to stay alive, there’s no time for your frontal lobe to think, ‘Wait, let me consider this and get more evidence.'
You’d probably run.
Louie sure would! Okay, I would too. But I'd get eaten because Louie is faster than me. I better bring my neighbor, Mike, who looks pretty slow...
OTOH, imagine a situation where we know we’re safe
and we open that scary book or strap in to a roller coaster.
Remember those hormones that our ANS so kindly releases when we're afraid?
We are hijacking our fight or flight response!
Our heart rates amp up, glucose pours into our bloodstream, oxygen floods our tissues!
and we know that we're safe enough to enjoy it.
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When we’re afraid, our bodies release chemicals.

These same chemicals contribute to feeling good under different circumstances.

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.

Science of Fear_Halloween costumes boys
WE LOVE 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. 

Louie reading
I DO LIKE SCARY BOOKS FOR MIDDLE SCHOOLERS! Click here for sci fi recommendations

SUCH AS DURING PANDEMICS

Being frightened by a book helps kids forge resilience

This study shows how horror fans may be more resilient during pandemics.

NIH STUDY PANDEMIC PRACTICE

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 Science of Fear_gravestones
I lOVE VISTING CEMETERIES! DO YOU?

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?

horror books for middle schoolers_The Nest
To purchase THE NEST, click on the cover for an affiliate link

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.

 

TWO THUMBS UP! AFFILIATE LINK TO PURCHASE_CLICK HERE.

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. 

horror books for middle schoolers_Night gardener
PURCHASE NIGHT GARDENER HERE

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. 

Scary books for middle schoolers_Thirteens
TO PURCHASE THIRTEENS CLICK ON THE COVER

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?

 

why do we like being scared_Louie does not
I DON'T LOVE A CURSE. I LOVE PEANUT BUTTER.

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?

 

horror books for middle schoolers_spirit hunters
CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE & I MAY TAKE $1.25! FROM JEFF BEZOS!

“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.

Triple Win!

ski jump
SCARY BOOKS!

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.)

Spanish Moss_Make Sense of Science_Sunshine
THE SCIENCE OF FEAR from your computer screen

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Rocking Specter
February 13, 2022 6:17 am

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!

Rocking Specter
Reply to  Susan Berk Koch
February 13, 2022 9:34 am

That’s great, and that sounds great. You’re welcome!

JamieAdStories
February 13, 2022 6:29 am

Interesting thoughts about our liking of being scared,

aami06
aami06
February 13, 2022 6:29 am

I’m with Louie. Not a big fan of fright but Small Spaces sounds great! Thanks for the interesting explanation about fear!

chelseakay01
chelseakay01
February 13, 2022 6:42 am

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.

Fadima Mooneira
February 13, 2022 6:51 am

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!

Eva+Apelqvist
Eva+Apelqvist
February 13, 2022 8:09 am

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.

Molly | Transatlantic Notes
Molly | Transatlantic Notes
February 13, 2022 9:25 am

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!

readandreviewit1
February 13, 2022 11:37 am

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

Unwanted Life
February 13, 2022 11:39 am

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

Rayo
February 13, 2022 11:59 am

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

Caroline
February 13, 2022 3:19 pm

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 :/

Mike
Mike
February 13, 2022 3:31 pm

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!🦹‍♂️🏃

Amy Laundrie
February 13, 2022 3:31 pm

Hi Sue,
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.

abober514
abober514
February 13, 2022 6:23 pm

This post is fascinating to me! I’m a huge horror junkie and always wondered why some of us enjoy being scared!

eileen
eileen
February 13, 2022 8:27 pm

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!

Mummy Conquering Anxiety
Mummy Conquering Anxiety
February 14, 2022 6:13 am

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.

Eleanor
Eleanor
February 14, 2022 7:44 am

Thank you for sharing this post Sue, I really enjoyed this insight 🙂

Sarah
February 14, 2022 5:13 pm

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.

Eri Tz
February 15, 2022 2:15 am

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 🙂

Lisa's Notebook
February 15, 2022 4:25 am

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!

Jodie | That Happy Reader
Jodie | That Happy Reader
February 15, 2022 8:23 am

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.

Charity
Charity
February 15, 2022 5:52 pm

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!

ellegracedeveson
ellegracedeveson
February 16, 2022 12:38 pm

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

Sandra Ans
February 17, 2022 1:39 am

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! ♥

Jenny in Neverland
March 2, 2022 6:08 am

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!

Susan Berk Koch author

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