The Science of Scary

Halloween is coming up. With Halloween come endless spooky decorations, and haunted houses while horror movies fill up seats at your local movie theater.

Experiencing or participating in something spooky, scary or downright terrifying around Halloween is a pretty much a social must… More than 97% of the United States’ population participates in some kind of Halloween-related activity around late October, whether it be going to a haunted house, a costume party, trick-or-treating or making it a movie night with a horror flick. Moreover, it appears that avoiding Halloween-related activities are somewhat difficult around this time of year. If you scare easily, your friends, family and co-workers may not be so sympathetic. In fact, they may be more likely to drag you to some kind of fright-fest!

The ghoulish decorations… spider webs, ghosts, zombies and an array of creatures in various stages of dismemberment, decay or injury is scary in its own right, and the answer is biological. Our primal animal instincts that have been bred into us through natural selection have taught us long ago to be afraid of the dark… those ancestors of ours who were not afraid to venture out into the dark, scary woods were more likely to be mauled by night-hunting creatures and did not reproduce as successfully as those who huddled by the fire. Based on a similar principle, we developed a fear of creatures that did not look like us… those who were not afraid of spiders, bats and just about anything with giant teeth were more likely to be bitten or mauled, therefore less likely to reproduce. The same goes for blood and gore… we are altruistic, social creatures who are biologically-wired to be concerned for others. Our instinct tells us that where there is blood and injury, danger or a predator is near… run!

There is also another type of scare that is commonly used around Halloween… the jump scare. This is especially popular in horror movies: imagine a dimly-lit hallway, the main protagonist is slowly and quietly making their way. The movie’s score is very soft and quiet, or absent whatsoever, with the noises of dripping water, footsteps and shuffling of clothing turned up all the way. Suddenly, a monster jumps out of the dark and attacks our hero… this is accompanied by a piercing loud noise, or a abrupt crescendo in the score. We jump out of our seats, hence, the “jump scare.” The jump scare plays on yet another primal instinct of ours: fight or flight. Faced with an instance of an unexpected stressful event, our body fills with adrenaline, our heartbeat rapidly increases and our bodies prepare to handle the danger via either confronting it, or fleeing. Once again, this is an evolutionary adaptation of ours… those whose bodies did not respond to situations of sudden stress or danger were less likely to escape or defeat the predator lurking in the woods… science!

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