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Fight or Flight: The Science of Fear...And Why We Like Scary Movies

people looking scared while sitting in a movie theatre

It’s a familiar feeling. You’re watching the killer crouch in the bushes, and the unwitting victim opens the window. Your mind screams “No!” — but it’s too late. In a terrifying second, this hapless homeowner becomes the latest victim of a supernatural serial killer.

As you shriek, then laugh, with the rest of the movie audience, a part of you wonders: Why do I find this so amusing? And why can’t I look away?

There are many theories about why fear can be both unpleasant and addictive. All of it starts with a chemical pathway in the body.

Fight or Flight: The Body’s Inborn Defense Against Danger

The science of fear is well-documented. The mechanism goes like this:

Your mind perceives a threat. “This trigger ban be a physical or mental fear,” explains Paula Barry, MD, physician at Penn Family and Internal Medicine Longwood. For example, another car runs a red light and you have to swerve to avoid a crash. In a few thousandths of a second, that stimulus triggers your amygdala, a set of almond-shaped structures deep inside your brain.

The amygdala responds like an alarm bell to the body. It alerts the hypothalamus, which sends a message to the adrenal glands to give you an instant burst of adrenaline, the “action” hormone.

Adrenaline causes your heart to race and pump more blood to your muscles. You breathe faster, and tiny airways in your lungs burst open, allowing more oxygen to travel into your bloodstream.

That extra oxygen goes to your brain and makes your senses keener—your hearing and eyesight, for example.

Oddly enough, your brain triggers this response even before you’ve fully processed what happened. See something flying at you, and voila—you’ll duck or dodge before you realize it’s the teddy bear your son threw.

As your adrenaline burst subsides, the hypothalamus starts up a second series of events, releasing cortisol, a hormone that keeps you “revved up” and ready for action.

This process is the fight-or-flight response. It developed to help us survive—for example, by evading predators or rescuing someone in distress.

What Else Happens During Fight Or Flight?

Depending on the degree of your fear, any or all of the following:

  • Chest or stomach pain
  • Loss of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Feeling chilled
  • Numbness in the hands
  • Fainting
  • Dilation of pupils

Is Fear Good For You?

“A certain degree of fear is good for you because it allows us to survive. It aids in making decisions and keeping us away from undue harm,” explains Dr. Barry. Some other reasons why fear may be good include:

  • If you’re threatened, it can give you sudden strength and stamina.
  • All that blood rushing to your brain helps you think more clearly to focus on the imminent threat.
  • Cortisol “switches off” any functions you don’t need for immediate survival, such as digestion. If a bear is chasing you, you’re not likely to feel hungry (although he just might).

When Is Fear Unhealthy?

Any kind of long-term fear or anxiety may leave you feeling sick, or at least not functioning as well as you should. “Anxiety disorders can occur when certain fears interfere with your daily functioning. There can be excess anxiety to both physical and mental situations,” says Dr. Barry. In fact, people with anxiety disorders are more likely to have chronic health conditions, such as gastric, respiratory, and cardiovascular problems. Dr. Barry advises that, “It is important to seek medical attention if you note that certain fears cause excessive worry or impairment of functioning.”

So Why Do We Like Scary Movies?

Many people (though not all, of course) enjoy the thrill that comes with a great scary movie.

There are no definitive answers as to why horror movies keep people coming back for more. But there are plenty of theories.

Some scientists theorize that watching a scary movie is satisfying because it’s fictional. It lets viewers distance themselves from the events they’re seeing. Other researchers theorize that horror fans enjoy the suspense and mystery that infuse these films.

Psychologists note that horror films also tap into archetypes—images or symbols in everyone’s unconscious mind. Fear of the dark is a good example: Most of us have experienced it, at least in childhood. So we can relate to the horror-movie victims who find themselves lost in the woods or trapped in a dark attic.

The allure of scary movies also might come from:

  • Curiosity or fascination with the unusual
  • Bragging rights — the ability to say you survived the movie
  • The emotional thrill: a buildup of tension, the emotional peak, the riveting moments when a plot ends in some sort of resolution

Maybe the most positive spin on the attraction to scary movies might be this— in most cases, the villain is defeated and goodness prevails. This gives viewers a sense of relief or triumph.

In that sense, a scary movie can be very satisfying….even if the memory of it does give you goosebumps afterward.

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