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Don’t Run From Fear — Embrace It

This essay is part of a series called Big Ideas, in which writers answer a single question: What are we afraid of? You can read more by visiting The Big Ideas series page.

Most people associate fear with something quite unpleasant, a primary response that is best avoided. Fear is what you feel when you perceive a threat to your life or physical integrity: when a rabid dog is loose and chasing you; when your car spins on a sheet of black ice, causing you to slide into a harrowing slide; or when a loud crash resonates in the kitchen in the middle of the night. But fear can be more complex than a single, uniform feeling. It comes in infinite varieties, ranging from the paralyzing terror of a life-threatening situation to the poignant unease of walking alone in a dark alley.

Although the investigation is still unraveling those nuances, most scientists agree that this complex response has evolved as a powerful survival tool that serves a vital purpose: keeping us safe from harm. Fear is thought to trigger the so-called “fight or flight” response, a cascade of physiological changes designed for immediate action. Your heart begins to pound, pumping blood faster to deliver oxygen and nutrients to your muscles. Your pupils dilate to capture more light, sharpening your vision. Beads of sweat on the forehead, perhaps a preventive measure to cool down after the expected burst of activity. This heightened state of awareness allows you to react quickly and decisively to danger.

Paradoxically, however, fear is not always something people avoid. In fact, many people actively seek out fear in various recreational forms. From heart-stopping horror movies and stomach-churning roller coasters to adrenaline-fueled skydiving and nerve-racking haunted houses, recreational fear is an extremely widespread human phenomenon that spans historical and cross-cultural spheres. It’s also a very lucrative industry, with horror films grossing more than 900 million dollars during 2023 only in the United States. But the desire to be scared goes beyond the realm of entertainment. Recreational fear can be a powerful motivator in several areas of our lives, and science suggests it may even benefit our well-being.

An artist poses in a haunted house in October 2021. Research suggests there is a sweet spot for the amount of fear humans enjoy: neither too little nor too much.Credit…Erik Tanner for The New York Times

Research suggests that the appeal of chilling, scary, and challenging activities emerges at a very young age. Babies squeal and giggle at the excitement of their caregivers disappearing and reappearing during hide-and-seek episodes; toddlers squeal with a mix of fear and delight as a beloved caregiver playfully chases them around the living room, pretending to be a bloodthirsty monster; and teenagers scream and laugh through haunted houses, bonding over shared adrenaline. Ongoing research in our lab indicates that more than 95 percent of children ages 1 to 17 enjoy some activities that scare them, from being thrown in the air by Mom or Dad to climbing a tree a little too high, playing a terrifying role. computer game or watching a horror movie when you are in love.

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One of the reasons children (and adults!) can enjoy fear is that it can be a form of play. As such, children in particular can learn a lot from scary situations. Researchers believe that controlled exposure to fear-provoking scenarios creates opportunities for crucial development, such as learning what fear feels like, how to navigate uncertain situations, and how to cope. Some researchers maintain that such learning can protect children of developing anxiety disorders. The key, of course, is to make it fun. Scary activities should not become too scary. Developmental scientists often talk about children being guided by the so-called Goldilocks principle: Children prefer stimuli that are “just right,” neither too simple nor too complex. The same goes for fear. They are drawn to challenges that excite them, but do not overwhelm them. As one child put it perfectly: “I like things that give me chills, but not nightmares.” It’s about finding that sweet spot of pleasurable fear.

Research from our laboratory shows that adults also have a sweet spot when it comes to fear. In one study, we asked participants inside a haunted house wearing heart rate monitors to report their levels of enjoyment and fear as they ran from the nightmare location, with chainsaw-wielding maniacs hot on their heels. The results revealed a so-called “inverted U-shaped” relationship between fear and enjoyment. Too little fear was associated with decreased enjoyment, but so was too much fear. In other words, enjoyment seemed to peak somewhere in the middle. Interestingly, we found a similar pattern in participants’ heart rate signatures, suggesting that enjoyment is related to “just right” deviations from a person’s normal physiological state.

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It appears that adults, like children, can also benefit from engaging with recreational fear. For example in a study from our laboratory, we found that people who watched horror movies regularly coped better with the stress of the first Covid-19 lockdown than those who skipped the scares. One explanation for this is that horror enthusiasts, through their exposure to on-screen scares, may have unknowingly trained themselves to cope with real-life stress, fear, and anxiety. This aligns with another finding from our lab: Horror fans report not only improved mood, but also personal growth and self-awareness by interacting with scary content. All those sweat-soaked movie marathons could pay off.

So, the next time you find yourself drawn to a scary movie or a hair-raising roller coaster, or feel inclined to stop a child from climbing a tree too high or riding a bicycle down a hill too fast, remember: The desire to Recreational fear is surprisingly widespread and may even be good for us too. Fear can be a form of exciting play, a tool for personal growth, and possibly even a way to build resilience in the face of real-world challenges.

Marc Malmdorf Andersen and Mathias Clasen are co-directors of the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University in Denmark.

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