October is the month that the evenings become darker, and the themes darker still. As Hallowe’en approaches, many of us are preparing spooky decorations, planning our scary costumes and selecting which horror movies to watch. Most of us would describe fear as a negative emotion – so why do we sometimes enjoy feeling frightened?

There are several reasons Hallowe’en and horror in general are so popular. On a neurobiological level, fear releases a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones which make us feel a “rush”. We quickly respond to scary situations with the release of adrenaline, which causes us to feel alert, and produces a physical response including an increase in blood pressure, pupil dilation and muscle tension. When our brains catch up that the situation is not actually dangerous, this is followed by endorphins giving us a positive feeling.

Secondly, scary experiences can be bonding. Watching a scary film or going to a haunted house with friends can make us feel closer to them. This is due to the combination of fear followed by safety and enjoyment. Activities that generate emotions are more powerful bonding experiences. 

Horror films can also be a good way to release stress. Most of us have experienced situations at work or at home where we’ve wanted to scream but couldn’t! At a scary event this response is expected and even encouraged, allowing us to expel stress in a socially acceptable way. 

Finally, Hallowe’en events, although scary, are safe – the spider webs aren’t actually real, and your neighbour isn’t actually Freddie Kreuger. This means that horror events are an opportunity to feel a sense of control over our fears, which can be empowering and enjoyable. We get to experience the rush of adrenaline followed by endorphins, combined with the knowledge that we are completely safe. 

In these ways the fear we experience during the spooky season is fun and entirely different from problematic anxiety. In anxiety people don’t feel safe, don’t feel in control, and don’t usually feel closeness or bonding (often instead feeling shame or loneliness). Whilst some anxiety is normal and helps to keep us safe, anxiety that causes you distress or impacts your ability to do the things you want to do is unhelpful, and national guidelines recommend therapy. 

This spooky season, remember your boundaries about what is fun and what is not. Your limits will be closely tied to your personality and experiences, and there is no right or wrong. Enjoy your chosen scary activities and remember: there is a big difference between thinking about dark themes (planning the perfect murder perhaps?) and acting on these. No thought can make you a bad person. 

Fear can be fun, but if you are struggling with anxiety or phobias get in touch today: enquiries@belgraviapsychologypractice.com

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