Peek-A-Boo: The Science Behind Fright


Horror films, haunted houses, and Halloween, some people love them, and some people hate them. All three things can be associated with fear, an emotion as old as time. It alerts us when we are in danger but also elicits an enjoyable high when appropriately administered. So, what exactly makes us crave fear?

From the circuity of the brain’s point of view, some of the main chemicals involved in or response to fear are those associated with our “flight or fight” system, which is further discussed in our Basics section. This sympathetic response is not only related to fear though, research shows that it is also involved in other positive emotional states, such as happiness and excitement. Hence, it puts us in a state of high arousal during a scare, this said, what makes the difference between getting an adrenaline rush and feeling completely terrorized?

Well, studies suggest that a major factor in how individuals experience fear has to do with context. When the cortex (thinking brain) sends feedback to the limbic system (emotional brain) and the individual is perceived to be in a safe environment, then the brain can quickly shift the way in which the high arousal state is experienced, changing from fear to excitement. For example, when you watch a horror film at home, you anticipate the jump scare, knowing it has no real threat to your safety, hence you are able to redirect the experience. In contrast, if you are walking alone at night and someone follows you, both your cortex and the limbic system would be in agreement that you are in danger, hence your emotions are not redirecting.

Psychology. Is it scientifically backed that sensory signals always go through the limbic/emotional brain system?. (2020).

How is fear experienced?

The emotion of fear begins in the brain in a region called the amygdala. This almond-shaped set of nuclei found in the temporal lobe detects the emotional importance of a stimulus (how much something stands out to us). A threatening stimulus triggers a fear response in this region, which activates the area of the brain involved in motor functions, triggers the release of stress hormones, and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Additionally, the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex help the brain interpret the perceived threat. They are involved in a higher-level processing of context, which helps an individual perceive if a threat is real. This consequently activates the SNS which prepares one to be more efficient in a dangerous situation

The Scientist Magazine. What Social Isolation Can Mean for the brain. (2020)

How do we learn the difference?

Much like most things in life, we learn fear through personal experiences and time. The way in which we experience an event warps our perception of it in the future, e.g. being attacked by an animal may affect how you perceive them later in life. However, an evolutionarily unique and fascinating way humans learn is through instruction, if a sign says an animal is dangerous, proximity to said animals will trigger a fear response. The same is said for safety, if you experience others interacting safely with animals this changes your perception of fear as you understand you are in a safe environment under no threat.

Why do someone people love it and why do others hate it?

For some fear creates a sense of distraction which can lead to a positive experience. Moreover, research suggests that when we experience these scary events with people close to us, we often find that emotions are contagious in a positive manner, i.e. subconsciously mirroring the emotional states of people surrounding us. This said, the commonality between context, distraction, and social learning is the sense of control. The perception of control is crucial in how one experiences and responds to fear. Once the “fight or flight” response has been overcome, we are generally left satisfied, reassured of our safety and more confident in our ability to confront the event that initially frightened us.


An imbalance between excitement caused by fear and the sense of no control in the contextual human brain may cause too much – or not enough – excitement. This can lead to an individual perceiving the experience as “too real”, which can consequently cause an extreme fear response overcoming the sense of control initially felt by the individual. Conversely, if the experience is not triggering enough towards the limbic system or is too unreal towards the cortex, this may lead one to feel bored.

In other words, scary films and experiences may not be as enjoyable if the cortex feels helpless and the limbic system perceives the fear as too real, or if the cortex is too suppressing and the limbic system is bored.

If you are still curious here is a short video with FunScience explaining why humans enjoy being scared:

Source: The Conversation “The Science of Fright: Why We Love to be Scared.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 30 October 2017.

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