Dusk creeps upon you as you make your way home, bringing with it the stillness and dark of night. As one sense shutters another opens, magnifying each whisper of wind-every shuffle on the pavement behind you. A prickling sensation spreads its evil warmth-its fingers grazing your spine and tickling your shoulders. Within your mouth your tongue becomes huge like some alien creature, and in answer your heart seems to swell, exploding with the beats of a firework.
Fear. A reaction most will not escape in their life time. A feeling which holds dread and discomfort. So why on earth do we love to be frightened and wny do we seem addicted to Horror novels?
Both psychologists and medics will reassure us that fear is as natural as breathing. We are physiologically built with a fight or flight reactant. But why would we actually draw gratification from this primary response?
It seems it is all to do with the chemicals involved when we kick start our sympathetic nervous system in this way. When we get scared, we experience a rush of adrenaline, which in turn releases endorphins and dopamine (see our supernatural blog). When mixed, these two chemicals can result in a pleasurable opioid-like sense of euphoria. In genuine circumstances, there is no safety net, and the benefit of the positive feelings caused by different neurotransmitters and hormones is not felt. However, this is where the clever bit happens, and it happens in the frontal lobe-the ‘thinking part’ of our brain.
The frontal lobe can modulate the primitive ‘fight or flight’ response and literally tell your body that you`re safe. The experience of fear then subsides, and you are left with all those lovely pleasurable feelings of relief and subsequent well-being, a natural ‘high’, if you will.
Sociologist Margee Kerr (Ph. D), sums this up ‘’ When we’re afraid our bodies release different chemicals that can contribute to feeling good under the right circumstances.’’
The feeling is akin to a state of high arousal, not sexual, but the feelings we experience when we are laughing, happy, or exited. We can enjoy being fully in our bodies, pushing mundane thinking about day to day anxieties away and connecting instead with primal and animal emotions, existing ‘in the moment’.
Of course, some love to be frightened more than others. Why is this?
Research shows that there’s a difference between people in how active or effective their sympathetic nervous response is. A 2007 study reported in the journal ‘Neuroscience’ (Vol 18(3-4) pp. 191—207), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18019606 maintains that the feeling of fear is unique to each person, as are the subsequent bodily and mental reactions. It notes that those who are empathetic and sensitive to others’ emotions may enjoy thrills, catching the contagion of others emotions and recreating them in themselves. Therefore, someone who is very empathetic may get more enjoyment experiencing the emotion of fear.
Experiencing fear through fiction is particularly intimate. How so? Given that being frightened releases a biochemical flood that can yield a pleasurable outcome, we often misattribute this arousal to the author whose books we are reading, thus creating a bond.
Of course it depends on how good the author is but perhaps now you can see why horror novels can be so addictive!