When my youngest daughter was about four she developed a common nighttime fear, the monster under the bed. As she was our third child and we were quite a bit more tired and less reactive than we were with the other two, we decided the best course of action was to embrace her monster as a friend. We all grew up loving Cookie Monster or Elmo so why couldn’t this monster fall in the warm fuzzy camp rather than the “I will eat you when you are sleeping” camp? Every time she would come to our room at night fearful because because of said monster, we would greet her with “Oh my goodness! Lucky you! You have your very own monster! What’s her name? What does she look like? Does she have a favorite book? Does she like to dance?” And other lighthearted, curious and unalarmed questions. Eventually her two big sisters caught on to the game and would complain, “Mom, that’s not fair! We never got a monster of our own! You must love her better!” Soon her monster had a name, Lavantra (her idea) and a theme song, Eminem and Rihanna’s "The Monster" (that must have been the sisters'.) At night, as part of the bedtime ritual we began incorporating reading a book to Lavantra and blowing her kisses. We found that rather than denying her fear (“That’s silly! There is no such thing as monsters!”) we joined the fantasy with her, yet reframed it into something fun and special and uniquely hers. Now, about eight years later, we don’t see much of Levantra anymore. But when we or her older sisters bring her up it is a warm, fuzzy monster memory rather than that of nighttime terror.
Fear is a funny thing. We have all experienced things that we find terrifying such as a near miss car accident or losing track of our child in a grocery store. Some of us have unfortunately experienced more traumatic terrors such as violence, abuse, accidents, terrorism, injury or war. None of us would chose to feel those associated feelings.
Yet, as I write this it is late October. My neighborhood is marked by front yards with skeletons, tombstones marked R.I.P., witches, cobwebs and ghouls of all kinds. We choose to immerse ourselves in the fantasy of danger, darkness and death if only for one sugar-coma-filled night. Why?
Dr. Margee Kerr, a sociologist and researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, has studied people who experience a haunted house. She reports that based on data collected by EEG and self reports that “Guests reported significantly higher mood, and felt less anxious and tired, directly after their trip through the haunted attraction. The more terrifying the better: Feeling happy afterward was related to rating the experience as highly intense and scary. This set of volunteers also reported feeling that they’d challenged their personal fears and learned about themselves.” (1)
Our bodies and minds are incredibly designed. All of our emotions have purpose even if we don’t understand them at the time. You are probably familiar with the “Fight, Flight or Freeze” response to feeling fearful or threatened. This is an involuntary reaction controlled by our sympathetic nervous system. We evolved so that if we were taking our daily stroll through the jungle and happened upon a tiger, our body would take over and help us survive the moment by fueling the vital parts of our body (faster heart rate, faster, shallower breathing, dilated pupils) and shutting down the parts that we don’t really need right now (dry mouth and cold hands or feet). We don’t stop and think of an action plan- we just react “quick, climb that tree!” or grab a rock and try to fight off the beast or roll up in a ball and play dead. After the threat passes we may not even remember choosing how to react. Our bodies take over.
These days the threats we face come less frequently from tigers (I am not talking to you Joe Exotic or Carole Baskin!) and more frequently from late bill payments, conflict with a co-worker, public speaking or other anxiety provoking life stressors that are not particularly well resolved by rolling up in a ball and playing dead. Yet unfortunately, our bodies haven’t necessarily caught up with the changes in stressors in our lives. They still react in fundamentally the same ways which now can feel much less adaptive. Panic attack, phobias, obsessive disruptive worries can all feel debilitating. There may not be an actual tiger in the house but the fear feels just as real and terrifying. Why is being terrified great fun in the haunted house or scary movie yet less so when it is real life?
In her book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, Kerr details how, due to the sympathetic flight or fight reaction our body releases neurotransmitters and hormones such as endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. These chemicals can feel great and also ground us deeply in the present. It is rare for someone to think of what to add to the grocery list while in a haunted house or remember that they need to caulk the bathtub while riding a roller coaster. Typically the response is to be hyper-aware of the now, the physical sensations you are experiencing as one would while practicing a mindfulness meditation.
According to Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biological science and neurology at Stanford University researchers have discovered “key facets of psychological stress. They found that such stress is exacerbated if there is no outlet for frustration, no sense of control, no social support and no impression that something better will follow.” Ultimately, a huge difference between the fantasy fear we experience in horror movies or on halloween is tolerable or even pleasurable because we are opting in. We are able to suspend our disbelief to the extent we feel the fun freak-out but don’t fool ourselves to the extent that we believe we may be in real danger. At that point the scary experience would probably lose its appeal.
This type of fear is also frequently a communal experience. Kids watch scary movies at a slumber party, giggling nervously with their friends, or ride the loop-de-loop on a date where the oxytocin release and hand holding may bond a couple together in this shared harrowing experience. My guess is the slasher chainsaw movie might be less fun without another survivor to share it with.
Perhaps some of us are drawn to the frightening and macabre as a way of dipping one’s toes into the unknown, existential fears humanity shares around mortality and death. Just like we may feel an intense pull to rubberneck an awful accident on the side of the road, voluntarily exposing ourselves to that which haunts us allows us to addresses our curious impulses in a safe and controlled way.
So whether you are one who goes all out on October 31 and embraces the dark side or maybe prefers to slip on a more mild mannered pair of bunny ears and eat KitKat bars, perhaps spend a moment focusing on the sights, sounds, scents, flavors, and physical sensations all around you. Take a moment to be fully present. Caulking the tub can wait until November.