Why Do We Like to Be Scared?

From haunted houses to Friday the 13th movies, we love to scare ourselves silly. For this special Halloween edition of the Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen answers the question: Why do we enjoy being scared?

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #43

I scream, you scream, we all...well, we love to scream.  But why? Why do so many people get a kick out being terrified?

In honor of Halloween, here are 4 reasons we love to feel fear:

Reason #1: Fight or Flight Creates a Natural High

Your brain likes to keep you safe.  

So when your brain perceives danger - whether an intruder on your porch or Freddy Krueger on your TV - your amygdala sets off a cascade of reactions. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for sounding the alarm.  When we perceive danger, it activates the sympathetic nervous system and instructs your adrenal glands to release stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.  

The result?  .

Your heart races, your eyes widen to better see the danger, digestion slows, and blood diverts to your large muscle groups so you can either run for your life or fight tooth and claw.

However, when your brain knows you’re actually safe, like when the haunted house bogeyman jumps out from around the corner, that adrenaline (along with dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter), can give you a natural high.

Individuals differ in their reactions to this hormone cascade.  A 2008 study found that having fewer dopamine receptors available in the brain went along with greater novelty-seeking. So folks with fewer receptors seek out adventure, either in relatively safe ways like horror movies or adventure sports, or in potentially less safe ways like experimenting with drugs or driving recklessly.  These differences account for why you might find bungee jumping thrilling, while I might say “No thanks.”

Reason #2: Enduring a Scare Boosts Confidence 

While some "fear junkies" love the rush, others love the confidence boost of surviving a scary situation.  

Making it through alive (even if you were safe the whole time, like in a Halloween haunted house) can leave you with a shot of confidence and a jolt to your self-esteem.

And who doesn't want that?


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.