Scary Fun – Chemistry and Romance Novels Take Two

Piggy-backing off my previous post, I’d like to postulate that reading romance novels is like falling in love, but that watching horror movies is like falling in love, too. And that we like them for the same reason we read romance novels. 😉

True Fact – my birthday is less than four days from Halloween. That means all my childhood birthday parties were horror-themed with magic, gruesomely fake food (cooked spaghetti=worms, peeled grapes=eyeballs, unsweetened red Kool-aid=dragon’s blood), and jaunts to the local haunted house to get scared out of my wits by actors dressed up in makeup to look like zombies, mad scientists, and the Grim Reaper.

But as fun as those birthdays were, I wondered why being scared is so appealing this time of year. And when I researched it, I found to my surprise that it might have something in common with falling in love.

Physical changes.
When you’re scared, your heart beats a little faster, you breathe more intensely (got to get ready to run, don’t you?), you begin sweating, and even get a few butterflies in your stomach. Take this out of context of a haunted house and I’d think you were in love. 😉

Hormonal changes.
When discussing scary things, people cite the “adrenaline rush” that washes over their body making them feel stronger, faster, able to get away from a threat or fight it. But if you’ve ever been in love, you’ll also recognize that ebullient feeling that you can take on the world or alternately, the need to run and hide from exposing your inner self to someone. And dopamine is what keeps us coming back for more. As part of our reward system, our brains will grab onto dopamine if we’re newly in love or if we’ve been scared. Which is why people go back to those haunted houses again and again–they’re getting the same hormonal reward that they would if they were falling in love.

Psychological changes.
Many people love being scared because it evokes the feeling of doing something adventurous, outside the norm, and even taboo. Hmmm. Sounds a little like an illicit affair you’re keeping a secret.

Sensory changes.
If you’ve ever visited a commercial haunted house, you know that your senses become acute. You’re bombarded with sights, smells, sounds, and occasionally a fake monster that lurches out and playfully makes an attempt to touch you. Psychologists note that the only other activity that is as sensory as that terrified feeling–is physical intimacy. When you’re with someone you love, you listen for their every cry, touch their body, and breathe deeply of their scent. Both circumstances trigger the body into cataloging everything from each separate sense in order to remember it. One so you can protect yourself from a threat, and the other to facilitate romantic bonding.

So maybe the reason we like scary stories is the same reason we like love stories. They elicit strong emotions without exposing us to actual danger. You’re not really in the clutches of a bizarre serial killer. Or you’re not physically in the uncertain position of falling in love with someone that seems to be the opposite of your perfect romantic partner. It’s safe to read these stories because they give us the same rush without all the peril.




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