When fear is fun

Between haunted houses, seriously scary pranks, and weekend marathons of the Saw franchise, October is every fear fanatics’ favorite time of year. But while some enjoy that kind of thing, you couldn't pay others to sit through even Halloweentown.

At its core, fear affects us all the same: Whether you’re watching a knife fight on TV or are actually in one, when you’re scared, your body releases a cascade of neurotransmitters which activates your sympathetic nervous system, also known as your fight-or-flight response, explains Martin Antony, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of the Anti-Anxiety Workbook. You start to sweat, you start to breathe more heavily, your heart rate increases, all to prepare you to either escape or take on that threat.

Whether you want to curl up in the corner or experience the terror all over again depends on both the circumstances and the person.

The reason some situations are scarier

One of the biggest parts of whether that feeling is pleasurable is if you believe the situation is safe or not, Antony says.

There’s two kinds of panicky positions: Ones where you’re in control (watching a scary movie, going to a haunted house, choosing to jump off a cliff into water) and the kinds where you’re not (encountering a bear, being lost in the woods).

In the first, there’s a film of safety. “Without actual danger, you get that rush of [the brain chemical] noradrenaline and the enjoyable relief that comes when it’s over,” Antony explains. “But if the situation suddenly turns and there’s very real danger, for most people, that’s not enjoyable anymore.”

However, what falls into those two categories isn’t so cut and dry. “For some, even though horror movies are obviously not real, they feed real fear later,” he adds. That’s where your imagination kicks in—the sound of a tree branch scratching at your window makes you jump, the glimpse of a red nose and clown collar flashes images of “It.”

Why certain people enjoy fear

“Some people are just more emotional than others, so they have a more heightened emotional response to everything, including fear,” says Antony. If you cry more easily or are more sensitive to mean comments than most, chances are you may feel more intense fear than others too.

But, the two main reasons you're naturally more or less fearful have to do with your brain chemistry and aspects of your psychology. Those neurotransmitters released to activate your fight-or-flight response include the chemicals norepinephrine (or noradrenaline), which ramps you up, and dopamine, which helps control your brain's reward and pleasure centers. Research has shown that some people enjoy that kick of dopamine more than others and have a harder time shutting it off, which makes them seek out that wave of happy hormones by scaring themselves and being more impulsive.

One type of person who may enjoy fear and those happy hormone kicks more: psychopaths. But you probably don’t need to distance yourself from your friends who love a good scare, Antony says. While adrenaline junkies share some traits with psychopaths—namely a lack of fear and increased impulsivity—it’s what you do with the love of the rush that matters.

On the flipside, there are folks who are “anxiety-sensitive,” Antony adds, which is essentially a fear of fear. “People can be afraid of external things like snakes or heights, but people can also be afraid of internal sensations, like thoughts and emotions,” Antony explains. “A lot of people simply don't like the experience of feeling fear; they worry if they get too scared they’ll lose control or faint or go crazy or have a heart attack. They avoid it because they think the feeling of fear is dangerous.”

How to be less scared

If you’re on the fence about whether you can handle the haunted house everyone else wants to visit, one thing to consider: Research in Psychological Science found that experiencing psychological pain (which fear definitely qualifies as) with others acts as a "social glue" and brings you closer together.

The best things you can do to be more fearless: Expose yourself to scary situations, however small, more often and learn to sit with the fear, not trying to control or fight it. Slow your breathing to counteract the hyperventilation that comes along with an overactive sympathetic nervous system, Antony advises. If being jumpy impairs your life, a psychologist can help you develop this mindful approach and learn to re-appraise how realistic your fears really are, he adds.

Considering all this, athletes might actually have a better tolerance for fear, or at least be better positioned to increase their tolerance. You’re inherently better at powering through discomfort, both physical and mental, than the average person, and probably already know the basis of mindfulness and breath control.