Poe Knows Why We Love To Be Scared

October has always been my favorite month. What’s not to love? The colorful leaves, the crisp chill in the air, apple cider, everything pumpkin, and of course, Halloween. All the great creepy movies are on TV (or, happily, Netflix), planning the best costume is a welcome, fun challenge, and the haunted trails just seem to get better and better. It is with such excitement that I found myself last weekend in a state of déjà vu as I waited in line for one of Connecticut’s most beloved spooky attractions, The Haunted Graveyard.

It had been 10 years since I had walked down the 45-minute terror trail and I couldn’t remember why I had stopped going. I always had such a good time waiting in line with my friends wondering what new features they added this year and hoping that the chainsaw guy would get us good again.

As the minutes went by in line, mine and my friend’s excitement and nostalgia seemed to waiver from joyous anticipation into dense, grey adulthood. My friends got caught up in the logistics of it all; they wanted to know how they came up with the logistics of the line and what they did with the set during the winter (they couldn’t possibly take it down and set it up every year?!). The sea of teenagers surrounding us was irritating to my friends; they were too loud, too naive, to disruptive, too juvenile. Working with young adults has, perhaps softened me to their silly mannerisms, for I couldn’t help but laugh at their frivolous conversations and oddball jokes. Their teenager-ness reminded me so much of me and my friends only 10 years earlier. Have we really lost that much of our youth that we can no longer identify with “the kids these days?”

My friends and I certainly had a good time as 25-year-olds but the experience seemed so much fonder in my memories and I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about being scared, especially as teenagers, that made for such fun. What was it about jolting out of our skin that made us want more? Then, as we get older, what distances us from that same memory?

Edgar Allan Poe, the virtual representative of all things spooky and October, said in The Fall of the House of Usher “I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect-in terror.” This particular story by Poe navigates the elements of fear as a driving force behind human demise. Fear is what lead Roderick to his death and what drives the narrative as a whole. Poe suggests that fearing danger is not the same as fearing fear. It makes sense then,  that haunted houses create the same effect on us; the danger is minimal and we are not afraid of being afraid, we are enjoying being only a little scared.

Psychology Today writer Margee Kerr wrote a post in 2015 titled “Why We Love to Be Scared” where she dissects the chemical reactions in our brains as we respond to fear. She writes that being scared is “our body’s well-developed threat response system letting us know that something is not quite right…this sophisticated system triggers a chemical cascade meant to help us survive: adrenaline, endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and others” which are remarkably similar to the chemical cascade when our brains react to positive, high pleasure situations. So, in a fake-scary situation our brains react as if it were a pleasurable situation.

It may seem obvious to say that our brains know the difference between real and fake scenarios but in a not-fully-developed teenage brain, the chemical reactions are all swirling around at once; walking through thick walls of fog not knowing who is going to jump out at you next is a very real experience, even if you know its all a show. Haunted houses ask us to suspend our disbeliefs and experience the action as if it were real, putting the reaction to fear on a more equal level to that of pleasure, and teenagers can just do it better than adults. Teenagers are less likely to fear fear itself (unless you’re Harry Potter) whereas adults have a more concrete sense of fear; not being able to pay bills, having your car breakdown and your cell phone die at the same time, not getting that job with health insurance, etc. Much like Roderick, we start to dread “the events of the future, not in themselves but in their results” as we get older. Teenagers are quite lucky then, to be able to walk that bridge where suspension of disbelief is fun, rewarding, and only a little scary.

Perhaps as we wait in line to relive those spooktacluar thrills, instead of getting irritated with loud, clumsy teenagers we should revel in their underdeveloped brains and remind ourselves to not be like Roderick and succumb to the fear of fear as we get older, but to allow ourselves to  suspend our fears let our brains kick up all the pleasurable and suspenseful chemicals and just enjoy knowing we can be scared without consequence; if only for a 45 minute walk.


Here are a few more scary stories to keep those neck hairs standing!

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