Frightful experiences as children can carry into adulthood and shape future experiences.

Whether you're the type of person who sits through a scary movie without so much as a peep or someone who screams from start to finish, a recent article from CNN reveals there's a reason to explain the level of fear you personally feel. "By definition, fear is a negative emotion," says Glenn Sparks, professor of communication at Purdue University. "When we're scared of something, we are experiencing our well-being under threat, and people do not enjoy that. What they are enjoying are things associated with that experience that typically happen after the scare is over."

People who enjoy scary experiences, like going through a haunted house or riding a roller coaster, may find satisfaction in conquering a threat. It's less about wanting to be scared and more about the gratification of facing your fears and coming out on the other end just fine. This is especially true when participating in fright-some experiences with friends, Sparks explains. "We call that an excitation transfer effect," he says. "If you come out of a scary film or the haunted house and you're laughing and talking with friends, that pleasant feeling you're having can be intensified by the arousal still lingering from your fear."

friend group on couch watching scary movie
Credit: YinYang / Getty Images

Beyond wanting to conquer fears, there are also people who seek out scary experiences because of the thrill. According to Joanne Cantor, a retired University of Wisconsin professor, humans have an innate survival system that has hard-wired us to look for novel things in our environment. "It's sort of like driving by a car wreck—you don't want to see it, but you can't help looking at it," she says. However, there are other people who like to play with those emotions and take risks. Cantor explains this may be because they have a low arousal set point and crave experiences that flood the system with adrenaline. "In psychology we refer to that as a sensation-seeking personality," she says. "It will be those people who skydive and bungee jump who may also seek threatening entertainment." 

Now, what does this mean for people who scare easily? Cantor says gender plays a role in this. She explains that men tend to like frightful events more than women because of the way each gender was treated as they grew up. "Girls are more likely to admit they are scared, whereas boys are taught to say 'I'm okay,'" she says. "Boys may not be as willing to admit they are as frightened as they really feel." But gender isn't the only factor here. If you experienced something very frightful at a young age, it's more likely to stay with you into adulthood and shape your preferences. "Children at a very young age think that what's on the screen is actually there," Cantor explains. "If a vicious beast is coming toward them on screen, a young child is going to be scared."

The science and psychology behind fright shows how important it is to soothe children when they're scared. Although adolescents eventually learn the difference between fantasy and reality, it doesn't mean those fears go away. This is especially true for empathetic people that can find a way to relate to the characters on screen. "You just might feel the fear more intensely and that stays with you, even for your whole life," Cantor says. "Our research found that one really tough experience could last literally forever."


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