UACES Facebook HALLOWEEN: The psychology of the ‘safe scare’
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HALLOWEEN: The psychology of the ‘safe scare’

At the bottom of it all is biology.

By Mary Hightower
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Oct. 26, 2023

Fast facts

  • Schrick: Scares provide endorphin release
  • Fear responses aren’t the same for all

(405 words)

(newsrooms: with file art of two people on a roller coaster; scary costumed person)

LITTLE ROCK — Roller coasters. Scary movies. Bungee jumping. Why do we like the things that scare us?

“For most people, low-stakes scares such as haunted houses, roller coasters, or scary movies are fun because, ultimately, we know we aren't really in danger,” said Brittney Schrick, assistant professor and extension family life specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Rollercoasters. Scary movies. Bungee jumping. They're all examples of "safe scares." (U of A System Division of agriculture file image)

At the bottom of it all is biology.

“We get a release of endorphins in our brains that feels good,” she said. “Especially when it turns out that we're safe, we get a sense of relief that causes us to relax. The anticipation of being scared can cause us to be tense and nervous, so when the scare finally happens, we get a nice payoff feeling.”

Endorphins are hormones that can give us a sense of well-being.

That rush of fear followed by a sense of relief has social effects as well, Schrick said.

“We often do these kinds of activities with others, so we get to enjoy the fear responses and bond with those we are with,” she said. “There's an ability to distance ourselves from what's going on if we start to feel too scared. So, we might think ‘it's just a movie,’ or ‘this will be over soon.'"

However, the tolerance for “fun fear” isn’t the same for everyone.

“Everyone's brain is different, so the responses we have when scared are different,” Schrick said. “Some people have been through truly terrible events in real life, so being scared isn't fun. Others are naturally cautious, so being scared feels foolish.”

Schrick said that “some people seem to have a higher threshold for risk taking than others, and it often shows up at an early age. They are the ones likely to look for thrilling activities because they like how they feel being on the edge of safety.”

Starts with peek-a-boo

The fun of the “safe scare” often starts with infants.

“There seems to be a human impulse to startle each other,” she said. “We start doing it when we play peek-a-boo with babies. It's not uncommon for babies to laugh when they are startled, so parents and other caregivers keep startling them so they will keep laughing.”

So why not be scared sometimes when we know everything will end up OK?

Dad plays peek-a-boo with baby
Humans love to startle one another. Infants often find peek-a-boo to be funny. (Image from Dreamstime)

Schrick said that “in real life, scary moments are often followed by fallout or long-term stress that isn't fun or easily recovered from.”

To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit Follow us on X and Instagram at @AR_Extension. To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: Follow on X at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Division of Agriculture, visit Follow us on X at @AgInArk.

About the Division of Agriculture

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system.

The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

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Media Contact: Mary Hightower