From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 26, 2018 -- In late winter 1998, Monique Dauwalder, then 29, and about a dozen other front-desk staff were in the otherwise vacant historic Old Faithful Inn, 2 days before it opened for Yellowstone National Park’s spring season. It’s a massive lodge. The log-and-limb lobby’s 92-foot ceiling is encircled by four levels of balconies. An 85-foot, 500-ton stone fireplace fills the center of the cavernous space

The scene was eerie. “It was big, it was mostly empty, and you could hear the creaking of the wood,” says Dauwalder, now a travel agent in Bern, Switzerland. If this sounds like a famous horror movie, the similarity wasn’t lost on the front-desk crew either. There, in the middle of that imposing lobby, which occupied a small piece of sprawling dark wilderness on a late winter night, six seasonal workers huddled around a tiny TV set. Sitting in oversized rustic armchairs, they surrendered to their fear: They watched Stephen King’s thriller The Shining.

For some, just the thought of watching that movie under those circumstances is too much, while others would line up for tickets to such a thrill. Why DO some of us relish nail-biting, spine-tingling, can’t-breathe terror?

It’s a hard-wired combination of fear and safety.

“The [brain] circuitry involved in any kind of excitement is overlapping, so you get that rush of adrenaline you feel when you do anything exciting,” says Arash Javanbakht, MD, a psychiatrist and director of the Stress, Trauma and Anxiety Research and Clinical Program at Wayne State University in Detroit. But to really enjoy it, he says, “We need a balance between knowing we are safe and also being exposed to something terrifying.”

A Plausible Threat

Not all horror flicks will give everyone a chill. Javanbakht, for example, won’t even flinch at The Walking Dead.

“I am a physician, and I couldn’t shut down my physician brain,” he says. “I’m thinking, ‘If these zombies don’t have a beating heart and blood circulation, how is this working? How are they getting their oxygen?’ ”

Those gags that you can see right through are the ones that will make you laugh or, worse, yawn, instead of tremble. For a scare, the threat has to be plausible enough in your mind.

The Exorcist is more realistic,” says Javanbakht. “That was happening in a bedroom, and now I’m in my bedroom, so who knows what could happen?”

That’s what created the perfect thrill for Dauwalder and her friends. Sitting in their empty off-season inn, they watched Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), caretaker of a similarly desolate inn that was closed for the winter, morph into a murderous psychopath. But they were together, and they knew Jack Torrance wasn’t real. That’s how Dauwalder and her pals could enjoy the scare: You’ll enjoy the fright if it’s in a relatively safe context.


A Safe Place

Only humans, Javanbakht says, know how to recognize a fear-inducing threat in context. “If I were next to a lion in the Sahara, I would freak out, but if I see one at the zoo, I will see that there are bars between us and know that I am safe.”

A movie or TV screen serves as protective bars, too. “It was scary watching The Shining in that setting, so I just kept telling myself ‘It’s just a movie,’ ” Dauwalder says.

The Halloween season also provides a safe setting for bone-chilling fear. Leonard Pickel does that for a living, through his company Hauntrepreneurs, a themed attraction design and consulting service based in Orlando, FL. Pickel, a trained architect, goes to great lengths to spook his customers. An environment that’s too safe, too controlled, can throw off the perfect balance.

“In architecture school, they teach you how to make people feel comfortable in a space,

so I just break all those rules when I’m designing my haunted houses,” he says. That means that long, narrow halls with extra-high ceilings and wide rooms with low ceilings -- no-nos for good architecture -- are standard fare in the haunted house industry.

While Pickel is scary-good at freaking out his clients, he admits that they do a lot of the work. When you willingly step through the creaking door of a haunted house, asking to be terrorized, “Your imagination can create monsters and creatures that we could never afford to build.”


A Complete Escape

The perfect fright hits the sweet spot. “Your animal brain is riled up and nervous, but your human brain tells you you’re safe and lets you enjoy the adrenaline rush,” says Javanbakht. That’s the type of scare that completely absorbs you.

The terror may have you chewing your nails or wringing your hands, but for that moment, it’s not your bills, your job, or your relationship that has your stomach in knots. “It’s a mindful moment,” says Javanbakht. “Because it gives you a high level of arousal and attention, it’s basically a respite from everything else that’s going on in your life.”

In that place of both safety and total absorption, you can experiment with fear and learn about your response to it without risking your life. Will you scream, run, freeze, or fall to your knees?

“A haunted house is the perfect opportunity to see how you’d react in a real-life situation,” says Pickel, “because you know you’re going to walk out the other side without dying -- at least that’s what we tell them.”

WebMD Health News Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 23, 2018


Monique Dauwalder, travel agent, Bern, Switzerland.

Arash Javanbakht, MD, director, Stress, Trauma and Anxiety Research and Clinical Program, Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit.

Leonard Pickel, owner, Hauntrepreneurs, Orlando, FL.

The Conversation: “The Science of Fright: Why we love to be scared.”

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