AUSTIN (KXAN) — From ghouls and goblins to Freddy Kruger and Michael Myers, Halloween is all about the things that terrify us. Why do we spend one night of the year trying to scare the bejeezus out of ourselves? We decided to dig 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’s a threat out there. I haven’t gotten away from it. So I experienced fear or anxiety or stress,” Markman said it’s actually nice to feel this 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 adopt fears of that our parents have or that our peer groups have.”
Early experiences can also influence what you’re afraid of. If bitten by a dog as a kid, you might be afraid of dogs. If chased by a clown that lives in the sewers, you might be afraid of clowns.
When we feel fear, our bodies react 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, we freeze for a second, right?” said Michael Drew, an associate professor of neuroscience at UT Austin.
“There’s a constellation of hormonal, neural, behavioral cognitive responses that are kind of all happening at once.”
According to Drew, the amygdala in our brains is responsible for controlling our fear response. It prepares us to fight or run but also to scare off potential threats.
“When we had ancestors that were hairier, the hair standing up actually has the effect of making us appear larger,” Drew said.
These sensations and biological changes, Drew said, also happen when we fall in love. Perhaps that’s the reason we take dates to see scary movies.
Seeking out the things that go bump in the night
Markman said we expose ourselves to fear for a few reasons, not just because of biological feedback. “It’s actually kind of nice to be in a situation in which you can experience that emotion, while still knowing you’re basically in a safe environment.”
One reason is as a training tool. We prepare ourselves for a threatening situation so when we actually face it, we’re ready to react. Markman said athletes sometimes do this.
“There are going to be difficult situations out there sometimes, and you’re going to have to perform adequately when there’s a potential threat.”
Healthy fears vs. unhealthy fears
Drew said, for the most part, fear is healthy. Most of the things we’re afraid of — bugs, snakes, heights — are natural and were dangerous for early man. These things could be actual dangers.
However, sometimes we can react to things that aren’t actual threats: exams, open spaces and mimes. Drew studies unhealthy fears and finds ways to suppress them before they cause harm to our daily lives.
“If your fear of snakes like, keeps you from leaving the house, right, or keeps you from engaging in activities that you want to engage in, then it’s maladaptive. And you might want to get a treatment.”
Halloween and fear: A study in death
Markman said Halloween is all about one fear more than others: DEATH!
“Here we are going into the shorter days of the year. And so, and so what we’re doing is recognizing the increasing darkness by tweaking death a little bit.” Markman said, adding mocking death during this time is part of how we confront it.
“We’re going to engage with our own death at some point,” Markman said. “Having a way of talking about that, even when we start by talking about it in jest is healthy.”