When I was little, I knew bad things were hiding under my bed at night.
Until I was about 14, I suffered frequent episodes of hypnogogic hallucinations — tricks my mind would play on me when I was just at the edge of sleep. In the years between when these episodes started and when I figured out what they were, a combination of auditory glitches, phantom physical sensations, a tendency toward anxiety and a religious upbringing had me convinced that evil crept in with the dark. I was so certain that something bad waited behind me that I couldn't sleep without my back close to the wall — and if I'm being honest with myself, I often still can't.
That's why my love of horror has always confused me.
I'm not sure when I first realized that I loved the adrenaline rush of a scary movie, but I do. In fact, I prefer movies that focus on the creeping, insidious presence of some supernatural force, playing directly into my personal childhood fears. I like watching the movies that I know will scare me the most, even though I know I'm setting myself up to be deeply unsettled for days or weeks afterward.
I'm not alone — lots of people enjoy being scared.
"Humans have been scaring themselves and each other since the birth of the species, through all kinds of methods like storytelling, jumping off cliffs, and popping out to startle each other from the recesses of some dark cave," Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear — and uses her knowledge to help perfect big-budget haunted houses — told The Atlantic in 2013. "And we’ve done this for lots of different reasons — to build group unity, to prepare kids for life in the scary world, and, of course, to control behavior. But it’s only really in the last few centuries that scaring ourselves for fun (and profit) has become a highly sought-after experience."
The weirdness of this phenomenon has become even more striking to me, thanks to a podcast called "The Black Tapes." It's a docudrama — the digital version of an old-timey fictional radio broadcast — and it follows a public radio reporter as she investigates supposedly supernatural cases (along with a scientist who, full disclosure, I have a huge auditory crush on. So if the voice of Dr. Strand is reading this, please call me and just speak random words for a few minutes. Thanks).
It's entertaining, but it's also exactly the kind of slow-burn supernatural horror that pushes my buttons. And because it's a radio drama, I can't close my eyes or slide my cursor forward to see what kind of scares are coming up that I might want to skip through. If I want to follow the plot I've become so invested in, I have to listen to the whole story — emotionally manipulative soundtrack and all.
"The Black Tapes" is coming back from hiatus on Tuesday, and I know I'm going to spend 40 minutes of my day getting more and more creeped out as I listen to it. I also know that, with the podcast updating every two weeks, I'm going to be anxious at bedtime pretty much constantly between now and the end of the season.
So why do I keep doing this to myself? Why do people enjoy being scared?
When our bodies are primed for danger — which is the physical state in which fear puts us — we achieve a weird kind of high. You've probably heard of the "fight or flight" response. Humans evolved this reaction to scary situations because our ancestors would have died out without it. Fear gives us a rush of hormones that make us faster and stronger, and back when the world was a more (immediately) dangerous place, people who lacked that response likely didn't survive to pass on their genes to future generations. Our ancestors didn't get any points for being super chill when they encountered packs of hyenas.
As our hearts speed up and we breathe more rapidly, our muscles get more blood with more oxygen in it, which is what we need to either fight the danger or flee it as fast as we can. A hormone called epinephrine (which you probably know as adrenaline) is released to trigger these superpowers, and it can wind your body up so tightly for action that it makes you shake in your boots.
But we're more than just our lizard brains: While the creepy music and insidious plot line of a scary podcast might get my heart pumping, that's just my brain playing a game of "better safe than sorry" — triggering the fight-or-flight response while my conscious mind analyzes the situation for any real danger.
"To really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we’re in a safe environment," Kerr told The Atlantic. "It’s all about triggering the amazing fight-or-flight response to experience the flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, but in a completely safe space." Kerr sees this all the time when she works with haunted houses. Folks leap into the air in shock and fear at a well-timed scare but then burst into laughter at their own reaction. They know for certain that the monsters they're facing aren't real, so they can enjoy the rush. That jolt of fear that happens before the conscious brain catches up is real as can be, but then we can put it aside right away — we get the best of both worlds.
So why doesn't everyone enjoy a good scare? According to a study led by Vanderbilt University's David H. Zald, my desire to poke at my childhood fears could come down to a slight difference in the way my brain works. In addition to adrenaline, fear releases a hormone called dopamine that's also associated with pleasure. Dopamine is a neurological "reward" that's important in conditioning responses to certain stimuli, so it may be what helps us produce consistent fight-or-flight responses to things we "know" we should be afraid of. It tells us that we need to sit up and pay attention to something. And it's kind of addicting.
When hormones flood our brains, molecules called autoreceptors that sit on our nerve cells keep track of the abundance of the chemicals and tell our bodies when to slow down their production. Zald and his colleagues found that folks with fewer autoreceptors were more likely to seek out thrilling situations, possibly because they (we, it's almost definitely we) get more dopamine out of a scary situation than other people do. “Think of dopamine like gasoline,” Zald told National Geographic in 2013. “You combine that with a brain equipped with a lesser ability to put on the brakes than normal, and you get people who push limits.”
So it could be that listening to a scary podcast for 40 minutes — and being kind of terrified of dark corners for days after — just makes me feel too superhuman to pass it up. But I have to toe a narrow line between enjoying the fear and being haunted by it. It's clear that I sometimes have trouble reaching the "safe" feeling that Kerr sees haunted house patrons return to after a scare, which makes sense: If a fear is cemented early enough and deeply enough, it can mess with your ability to be logical about similar fears in the future.
"The chemicals that are released during fight-or-flight can work like glue to build strong memories ('flashbulb memories') of scary experiences, and if you’re too young to know the monsters are fake, it can be quite traumatic and something you’ll never forget, in a bad way," Kerr said.
Maybe I'll work through it. Studies have shown that repeated exposure to a scary stimulus that isn't harmful can help retrain the brain. The more times I nervously turn on my light and confirm that, no, there isn't an ancient demon that goes by the name "Tall Paul" standing at the foot of my bed, the less likely I am to feel the need to check in the first place. This is basically therapy, you guys. I'm so good to myself.
I would love it if I could make my brain a little better at feeling safe — but only because it's going to make being scared that much more fun.