Haunting horrors and spooky stories: Why humans enjoy being scared

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — There is something about this time of year. Whether it’s the leaves changing or Halloween decorations on display, it tends to get us in a spooky mood.

But for Jerry Ayres, a paranormal investigator with Supernatural Investigators of Minnesota, ghost season is 12 months out of the year.

He used to work at Stanley’s Northeast Bar Room in Minneapolis, which used to be called Stasiu’s.

“This place is incredibly haunted,” Ayres said.

The experiences and stories of this place are endless, and Ayres has a few himself.

He worked here in the 1990s, but current staff says they’ve had just as wild experiences.

“All of a sudden, I could hear big band music, like really loud, and then, I could hear glasses that were hitting the bar, ya know, that’s a distinct sound—somebody finished with a beat, slamming it down, wanting another one. I come walking out and it just all quit. It was just nothing. I searched the place, there was nothing here,” Ayres recalled.

Shmuel Lissek, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Minnesota, explains that’s why we can both enjoy the thrill and be scared of it at the same time.

“But where people tend to enjoy the experience of fear is where the threats are hypothetical. You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who enjoys the experience of being afraid when they are on an airplane they think is going to go down,” Lissek said. “I’m watching a horror movie. The bad guy jumps out of a closet. For a second, I forget that I’m watching a movie. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, this guy is jumping at me,’ and then, quickly following that is the realizing that this is a Hollywood movie. The feeling of fear can really bring you alive, You know, your heart starts beating faster, your respiration increases, you have heightened attention, and some people might enjoy that arousal that sort of kicks you out of that mundane state that you’re usually in.”

There is also of course a scientific explanation of this all.

“The bad guy jumps out of the closet and immediately through the quick and dirty route. The thalamus triggers the amygdala, and you have this fear response. We’re talking about in this first 100, 200 milliseconds of this guy jumping out of the closet, but you quickly realize this is Hollywood. And that realizing it’s Hollywood is the cortex shutting down the amygdala and this area of the cortex shutting down the amygdala, it also sends direct messages to the reward centers of the brain, and can create a reward response that underlies relief,” Lissek explained.

So, why is it that some of us love to feel fear and others absolutely hate it if the same chemical process is happening in our brains?

“That is the million-dollar question in neuroscience. Accounting for individual differences is huge,” Lissek said.

He says as much as we have the same functions, our brains have unique architecture.

“Environments turn on genes, genes produce proteins that build the brain. So, when we talk about the brain, the brain is a product of gene, environment interactions,” Lissek said.

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