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Why do we like being scared?

A family watches a scary movie.
Nataliia Nesterenko

Why do some people like haunted houses and scary movies? What is fear? Why do humans have fear! Why do we get goosebumps, blink a lot and scream when we’re scared? Why are some of us afraid of what’s in our closet or under the bed at night?

We look at fear, and the fun side of fear with Marc Andersen, who co-directs the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University in Denmark. He studied fear and play and how they intersect. Turns out, moderate and controlled fear can actually have benefits to our mental health!

Download our learning guide: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript

  • The Recreational Fear Lab looks at why some humans enjoy being scared and the effects of “fun fear” on humans.
  • Researchers measure heart rate fluctuations and the amount of sweat on the skin of participants going through haunted houses, and matches their physical reactions to their feelings about the experience. 
  • Their studies have found that people enjoy being moderately scared - just enough to feel some of the physical sensations of fear, but not too scared. 
  • Researchers think a bit of playful fear might help people when they later encounter actual scary situations because the playful fear has given them a sort of practice run.
  • Fear is one of the most studied human emotions. Evolutionary psychologists think fear developed to keep humans away from dangerous situations.
  • We probably scream when we are afraid to alert others to potential danger, or to get help. When other people hear our screams, it triggers their brain’s fear center, the amygdala. 
  • When it comes to scary movies, it’s important to make sure they’re age-appropriate. Kids who are too frightened can develop anxiety. 
  • Kids who engage in moderately risky play, like riding a bike down a hill or climbing a tree, tend to be less anxious, perhaps because they have practiced being afraid. 
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
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