Halloween treat: Getting scared can be good for your health

From outside the Distorted Maze, fog-enshrouded and sinisterly lit in garish red and white, screams punctuated the night. Blood clearly had been curdled, hair definitely raised. Something dreadful and altogether fearful was going on within the walls of this popular attraction at Fright Planet, a haunted-house extravaganza at Sacramento’s Cal Expo.

So why was it that Anthony Lopez and Gina Gonzalez, of Sacramento, were laughing as they emerged from the black curtain after completing the gory gantlet of horror?

“Well,” said Gonzalez, a line of perspiration beading her brow, “it’s fun.”

Fun. Of course, the simplest explanation.

But, in raw physiological terms, what is it about getting the wits scared out of you that inspires revelers to plunk down as much as $40 at haunted houses, or to willingly submit to horror movies with chainsaw-wielding madmen, or even embrace the more active, tangible fear posed by skydiving and BASE-jumping?

Is it merely for an adrenal rush, a yen for that squirt of hormones that produces a heady sense of heightened awareness and euphoria? Or perhaps a relic of the evolutionary trigger that allowed our ancestors to escape a rampaging puma on the savannah and now allows us to slam on the brakes to avoid being sideswiped?

Whatever the motivation, courting fear can be a good thing – actually healthy for a body in the short term, doctors and psychologists say.

Dr. Peter Yellowlees, professor of psychiatry at UC Davis, ticks off the instantaneous physiological changes a body goes through in a fear state: “You tend to sweat more, your breathing rate increases, you look red, you may have tingling in your arms, legs and cheeks, and more blood goes to your muscles.” While it might strike some as a recipe for stroke, it in fact shows that one’s sympathetic nervous system is functioning as required.

“Fear is a very good thing,” Yellowlees said. “We all need it to survive.”

And not just to outrun predators. Dr. Rob Dobrenski, psychologist and author of “Crazy: Notes On and Off the Couch,” believes that embracing fear in an inherently safe setting such as a haunted house can be therapeutic.

“I tell everyone that you’re basically hard-wired to want to experience all the emotions in the human spectrum,” Dobrenski said. “It’s the same reason that people, when they get depressed, listen to sad music. There’s something therapeutic going farther into the abyss. It creates a nice little cocktail of emotions, positive and negative.

“Even though you feel scared or sad, if you experience the pleasure part of it, the negative part is more cerebral.”

Good fear – and bad

Where fear gets its bad rap, where it can lead to a cadre of physical and psychological problems, is prolonged release of fear-induced cortisol in everyday stressful situations.

So, in short: Screaming at a zombie reaching for you is a healthy response; stewing when your boss criticizes your latest sales report is inherently unhealthy.

“That’s the pathology of fear,” said Dr. David Bibas, of the California Science Center, which has developed a touring exhibition called “Goose Bumps: The Science of Fear,” to educate people about the benefits and drawbacks of the primitive emotion.

“When the system goes out of whack in the sense that it’s responding but the situation doesn’t call for it, it can become a disorder like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and anxiety. There’s no physical reason for it, and that’s bad because you get unnecessary stress hormones that harm your body.”

The thing is, the body often does not know the difference between real and imagined fear. It simply responds to stimuli. The latest research suggests that, before we are even conscious we’re in a fearful situation, the sympathetic nervous system and endocrine systems are activated. When the brain’s sensory cortexes detect fear, signals are sent to the amygdala, a nut-sized nuclei in the temporal lobe responsible for sifting through our emotions for threat evaluation.

The amygdala fashions its response from signals it gets from vision (a psychopath wielding a chainsaw), or hearing (a demented clown cackling) or feeling (someone grabbing you from behind), and sends messages to the hypothalamus and brain stem for action. Only then is the message sent to the prefrontal cortex for further threat evaluation.

All this happens, doctors say, pretty much instantaneously.

“There’s an old saying,” Bibas said, “that it’s better to mistake a stick for a snake than a snake for a stick. The amygdala gives an immediate reaction – we’re talking fractions of a second. If the danger doesn’t turn out to be real, then the system stands down.”

Jeff Wise’s book, “Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger,” explores why some people are drawn to high-risk, fear-inducing activities as well as brief flirtations with horror such as haunted houses.

“One idea is that after the acute stress of a sky dive or scary movie, the body swings into a compensatory mode called ‘parasympathetic rebound,’ essentially a kind of super-relaxation,” Wise said. “People report feeling euphoria, heightened sensory awareness, and a preternatural sense of calm – all very rewarding sensations that people would want to achieve again. The exact neural mechanisms are so far unclear.

“I like to say that all fear is irrational. While our conscious minds may be able to find rational justification for whether something is truly dangerous or not and, hence, worthy of fear, the primitive part of the brain that switches on the fear response doesn’t engage in that kind of processing. So, if (you) see or hear something that matches a danger stimulus – a guy coming at you with a knife, say – that will trigger the fear response, even if it’s only on a movie screen.”

‘It almost does feel real’

Some haunted house aficionados, however, say they can consciously mitigate Halloween-like fears.

“Whenever I do feel scared,” said Maria Ramos of Sacramento, “I just remind myself that it’s completely made up. It helps especially when it’s done so well that it almost does feel real.”

Ramos, however, admits that, in the moment, she succumbs to her more primitive responses. “I’ll still cringe at every corner,” she said. “I get anxious, not the ‘I’m-going-to-pass-out’ anxious but the edge-of-your-seat feeling. I get a slight adrenaline rush when I do react. I spook easily, so I’ll jump at anything that jumps at me.”

Others, such as Erin Alvarez of Woodland, try to stay rational while in a spooky milieu, but fail.

“You kind of get in a mind-set when you’re in there that there’s no way out and you really do feel scared. It tends to become real, consciously, for me.”

University of Santa Clara professor John Morreall, in an article titled “Enjoying Negative Emotions in Fiction” in the journal “Philosophy and Literature,” says that in order for people to enjoy fear they must have a sense of being in control. In other words, they are able to step out of the haunted house safely, or pause the horror flick on their TV.

“Intense fear – terror – is not enjoyable because in such a state we lose control over our attention, our bodies, and our total situation,” he writes. “We can no longer even flee ... instead we freeze in our tracks, are ‘petrified’ or we go limp, perhaps even faint. Objectless fear, or general anxiety, is also not enjoyable because, not knowing its source, we feel unable to control it.”

But controllable fear?

“Especially for someone who leads a relatively dull life,” he says, “the stimulation provided by fear can be pleasurable by contrast with the ordinary lack of stimulation.”

Indeed, in line at Fright Planet, Kati Redmond and daughter Chena, were already overstimulated, giggling and bouncing on their toes.

“It’s the closest you can get to feeling that natural, real fear – without the consequences,” Chena said. “You can scream and realize you’re not going to die.”