The Very Surprising Benefits of Scaring Yourself Silly
Elizabeth Bernstein -
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November 1, 2022

Millions of people love to frighten themselves on purpose — with hair-raising entertainment such as scary movies and TV shows, spooky novels or videogames, true crime podcasts and haunted-house attractions.

Now, research on the phenomenon of chasing fear for fun, or “recreational fear,” is showing that it has significant benefits: It can help us bond with others, soothe our stress and anxiety, and maybe even become more resilient.

Fear, or the emotional response to a threat (real or perceived), exists to alert us to danger. When we’re scared, our sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of our fight or flight response, floods our body with adrenaline and our brain with neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine, which can lift our spirits and energy.

This is why a good fright can boost our mood - as long as we know there’s no actual threat, says Margee Kerr, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh and author of “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.” Dr. Kerr’s research has found that people who visit “extreme” haunted houses (think actors grabbing participants, zapping them with shocks) often feel less stressed and tired, more competent, and that they’re in a better mood afterward.

And researchers at the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University in Denmark, founded in 2020 to study the positive effects of fear, have shown that horror movie fans exhibited greater psychological resilience during the pandemic than people who never watch scary movies. They believe that doing something scary for fun helps people manage their real-life fears by teaching them how to regulate their reactions.

“It’s similar to putting a fighter pilot into a simulator,” says Mathias Clasen, director of the lab and an associate professor of literature and media at Aarhus University. “You learn what the emotions feel like and how to control them.”

A scary experience doesn’t have to be violent or gory to produce emotional benefits. Entertainment can be suspenseful, startling or spooky without a drop of blood. A haunted house tour, late-night ghost story or a good mystery can all do the trick.

Who enjoys being scared? There’s no typical fear fan, although they tend to be younger and many report being anxious types, says Coltan Scrivner, a research scientist in the Recreational Fear Lab. Dr. Scrivner believes that anxious people enjoy a manufactured scare because it gives them a feeling of control over a fictional threat. They can manage their fear by closing their eyes or taking a break.

In a study published online in August, Dr. Scrivner and colleagues identified three types of horror fans: Adrenaline junkies get a thrill, and an immediate mood boost, from the intense experience. White knucklers are genuinely afraid: They don’t get a mood boost but say they learn something about themselves and grow as a result of pushing beyond their comfort zone. And dark copers, who use horror to work through their difficult emotions, get a mood boost and say they develop as a person.

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Related: The 10 Most-Terrifying Books and Movies and More to Scare Yourself for Fun (

Notice: This content is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before making any changes to your wellness routine.

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