Fear Itself: Why Do We Like To Be Scared?

Because I said the H word, you don’t want to go in there, do you?

Roller coasters. Haunted houses. Horror novels. Ghost stories. Scary movies. Rick Santorum.

We can’t help but try it, read it, watch it, or look. Though the occasional person avoids all fear like Drac himself could pop out if they indulge, most people enjoy feeling scared under controlled circumstances.

As a child, I loved hide and seek. I was pretty good at it, too. What I remember about it was the adrenaline rush, the tingly, tangy fear that someone would catch me. As much as I loved that, the first real fear game I remember playing as a child had to do with boys.

In preschool, I fell in love with a little boy named Kenny. We used to hold hands at naptime. He had a rat tail, and he’d let me play a Ninja Turtle instead of making me to be April. He was also a year older than me. When I went to kindergarten, Kenny was in first grade. And he joined the Team.

The Team was a bunch of boys who would chase the girls and take them to this play cabin and threaten to throw them into Kachemak Bay. When Kenny joined the Team, all my hopes crashed. Going to recess became a time of fear, when all the boys were a danger. Nobody wanted to be thrown in the bay.

As I grew older, tag replaced the Team. Hide and seek. The numerous little games based on drawing shapes on someone’s back and lulling them into comfort before giving them a big push “off the side of a building.” Hot lava.

So many children’s games are based on fear.

When I began to read chapter books, I skipped Goosebumps and dived right into Fear Street. Before bed. I’d read R.L. Stine‘s descriptions of purple rotting flesh and the dying rictus of a character’s face.

From the time we’re little, we are more than accustomed to fear. Why?

I think a big part of it is instinct. Humans mature very slowly, but our society has progressed at astonishing rates. Our ancestors grew up in fear. They feared the dark, loud noises, white teeth in the night. Fire kept away some predators, but children at a young age would learn terror. They’d learn the screams of giant cats and the trumpets of mammoths. Though we are not driven by instinct as much as other animals, I believe some of it still exists within us.

What is hide and seek but practice for hiding from a predator or an enemy?

What is tag but practice for evading?

What is capture the flag but a sojourn behind enemy lines?

We practice those things out of hopes we’ll never really have to use them. It makes fear safe, allows us to feel the rush and the chalky terror without thinking we’re going to end up shot or lunch. An article from Science Dailyย posits that the old belief that humans seek only pleasure and to avoid pain may not be entirely true — humans can and do enjoy being scared.

In a world (and a country) where we are mostly safe from the primal fears of our ancestors, I think we instinctively seek out experiences that recreate that fear. ย We know that scary things still happen in this modern life, and I think that exposing ourselves to differing kinds of adrenaline rushes and fear softens the blow when something scary happens to us. In a way, it prepares us for that eventuality, because we’ve seen something like it before. Even if the memory is a false picture created by Hollywood or a game played as children.

The thrills we seek might not be the real thing, and they don’t have the same effects, but in a way they’re training for the what ifs of the world.

And those what ifs are often the scariest things we face. I believe Franklin Delano Roosevelt said something like that a few decades back.

What do you think about fear? Do you like thrill seeking activities? Have you ever jumped out of a plane or off a bridge? Do you watch horror movies or read thrillers? Let’s talk scary!


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on February 28, 2012, in Terror Tuesday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. Interesting perspective on fear and children’s games. I never thought of it that way, but you’re right.

    It’s the rush!

    I’m a big horror fan ~ have been as long as I can remember. I remember reading The Shining as a teen, in the dark ~ scared to death! But I just loved it and that hasn’t stopped. It’s the heart pounding and the adrenaline rush.

    Great post!

  2. Fantastic post. Interesting question indeed and I think that many of us do seek out the “rush” we get from being scared. But that fear has to be in moderation – if we ever start to feel as though we are truly unsafe, I think any pleasure we could derive from the experience fades away.

    P.S. I also had a fling with a boy with a rat tail back in my early childhood days. Ah, young love.

    • Ah, the 80s. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I agree — when that rush turns into actual anticipation of pain or injury, the rush becomes unpleasurable. Fear definitely serves many purposes in human development and survival.

  3. I love to feel scared: give me a scary movie, rollercoaster or graveyard seance any day of the week ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Oh, you definitely scared me…with Rick Santorum. Good one! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I couldn’t resist after a week of hearing his asshatery.

      Sometimes I can feel his comments eating my brain cells.

      I don’t want to offend any of my readers by getting too political, but I think even most Republicans want to facepalm themselves when they think of him winning the primaries.

      • Yes, I tend to avoid the politics issue on my blog as well (though I love a heated debate in person :)), but that one was too good to pass by.

  5. It’s a total rush. I remember playing those scary games as a kid (Bloody Mary and Light as a Feather in the dark) trying to spook ourselves. I believe the huge lines at Horror Fest and Knott’s Scary Farm shows how people love to spook themselves out. Many love a good scare! I’m there every year.

  6. Really good post – and lots of food for thought. I’d never thought of our kids games as training to deal with our instinctive fears, but it certainly makes sense. The adrenalin rush when you do something daring is hard to match, although the letdown afterwards is something I might want to do without. In Park Service training, we did mountain rescue training at the Grand Canyon. I can still remember the rush of combined adrenalin and “OK-I’m-not-going-to-panic” just before I took the first step backwards over the edge of the Canyon where we were rappelling. The high when I reached the end of the rappell was even bigger. I used to think I’d like to try sky diving, but now days I’ve outgrown that particular urge. For scary now I’ll stick to Stephen King or Dean Koontz.

  7. I think fear is something we can all relate to BUT we have those things that will help us overcome those things. I love roller coasters but I can’t see myself bungee jumping or jumping out of an airplane. I’m looking for something that will not stop my heart for my next adventure.

  8. I think fear drives us to be better. Some may say it is love or money, but fear is a powerful motivator that has been around longer than the need to accumulate crap or the need to connect to each other. But why we repeatedly subject ourselves to it?

    I don’t know. That’s a good question. As others have said, I’m sure it has to do with the adrenaline rush, as well as our need to test our boundaries.

    However, I am not a horror fan. I don’t like it, actually. I stopped reading Stephen King and other authors of his ilk because I just didn’t like being scared. I think I grew out of it. I guess there’s plenty stuff in real life that scares the crap out of me, I don’t need it in my fiction.

  9. I love scary horror movies. I remember as a kid I was petrified to shower after I saw Nightmare on Elm Street. I made my mom come in and sit on the toilet and talk to me during my shower. But I like being scared. I loved The Shining. Though I couldn’t sleep the night I watched it. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Oh, man. My friends and I watched The Shining right after they came back from the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park — I visited the hotel a couple years later, but it still scared me!

  10. “Roller coasters. Haunted houses. Horror novels. Ghost stories. Scary movies. Rick Santorum.” Emmie, thank you for my biggest laugh out loud moment today … and SO true.

  11. Wow… I loved the comment about Rick Santorum! The fact that birth control is even an *issue* in this election is sad.

    • And the fact that said issue is being debated by ONLY middle aged white men is just plain terrifying.

      • Absolutely! What we really need is a solid female president…maybe then we can move past the ’50s. Oh well. Maybe next election. Why don’t you run? I’ll vote for you!

        I’m very moderate politically, but it seems like all of the candidates are pushing buttons right now…and Obama made education cuts, which makes me terribly unhappy.

      • Ugh. Yeah. When will this country realize that education is the most valuable investment we can make and stop starting wars instead?

        As much as the idea of fixing the country appeals to me, president is NOT the job for me, lol. But thank you! Who knows…maybe by the time I’m 35 I’ll change my mind.

      • Tell me about it! And I also heard that Santorum called Obama snobbish because he thought it was important for kids to pursue vocational or higher education after high school…um what? How about, nearly essential in this terrible economy lol. There is nothing snobbish or elitist about vocational training anyway. We can love the blue, pink, AND white collar workers equally. It’s okay.

        Maybe that’s what we need…someone who doesn’t think it’s the job for him/her. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • Oh, for REAL. “Obama thinks everyone should go to college. What a snob!”

        That comment made my blood BOIL, though I will say Jon Stewart’s response on The Daily Show almost made it worth it.

        Education is the backbone of any nation, and our failing system is the reason our graduates and higher skilled workers are unable to compete with people all over the world. It’s shameful and abysmal. For a nation that prides itself on being the best, we seem to be intent on making ourselves the laughingstock of the world. I live outside D.C., which should be the pinnacle of American education and an example to the rest of the country. Instead it’s a city where 1/3 adults are illiterate and almost all children are 2-6 years behind their grade level.

        For SHAME.

      • Same here… (I’m ashamed to admit that I’m a one-issue voter…but on education). ๐Ÿ™‚

        I’ll have to look that up!

        Totally agree with you…while America might be more creative than other nations, our college education is a total joke. I live on the Border now, and that is a whole other story… It is tragic how lacking much of the education is out here.

        And people think kids should be able to make it on their own…if they can’t rub two words together well, how could they do much of anything else well?

  12. It’s funny, but as I get older, I am less inclined to want to watch scary movies. I still love certain types of thrillers, but ghost stories? nope. Demon home invasions? uh uh. Psycho stalker serial killers? no and no. Think that means I am turning into a wimp?

  13. I’ve never liked being afraid or saw the attraction of the rush. I hated playing Hide & Seek — because I wasn’t good at hiding. Never saw the point of scary movies and can’t say I’ve ever seen more than 15-20 minutes of any of them. Always avoided “scary” books. Never really played Truth or Dare — and on the rare occasions I did, I always took the Truth because of the fear of what the person would think up to ask me to do. I guess I spent so much of my life being afraid of what I might have to do, I never pushed the envelope “just in case”….Perhaps the reality of fear lived too close for me to consider the rush of fear attractive?

  14. Personally I’ve always found horror movies and haunted houses there more for comedy than terror…but hey, I’ll be the first one to admit I’m an odd little duckling. But Santorum? Bloody, Emmie–now I’ll never sleep tonight!

    But you’re quite right…we (the collective we) crave that rush, be it consciously or subconsciously. Funny that often enough we attach the phrase “well you’re just living life!” to such things. Some times it takes a brush with death, a conceived brush with death, even watching others experience the same to gain a true appreciation for living…for some. Then there’s people like my sister-in-law, who sees no sense in any of the above, and will gladly smack someone upside the head for doing or suggesting the lot.

    I personally have been hit several times for suggesting horror movies. For shame!

    But me personally? I enjoy the sensations rollers coasters and their like stir…but I draw a line somewhere between that and bungie jumping. that and skydiving have always just seemed to me to be asking for trouble…and I’m content enough in my non-brush-with-death to evade them forever. Thrill-seeking mind vs. logical survivors complex. *nod*

  15. Interesting questions! I don’t like thrill-seeking activities, and I don’t know that I enjoy being scared. Yet, there’s something about fear that fascinates me. I love reading horror novels and thrillers, and I am drawn to things that are haunting (without really knowing how ‘haunting’ and ‘fear’ relate to each other).

    But, as I think about this more, maybe I do enjoy feeling scared in some circumstances. I think I am most drawn to a sort of abstract fear. For instance, I don’t really care for horror movies that are slashers or designed to startle. I much prefer those where the horrible is more implied or left off-screen. That way my imagination has more to work with.

%d bloggers like this: