A Link to the Distant Past: Why We Like to Be Scared.

What is it about campfires, the dark, surrounding woods, tales of the unexplained, of ghosts and monsters, that stirs our imaginations and entertains us so?

When you think about it, darkness is a key element in most situations that bring us a chill or a fright. When is the best time to drive down that creepy road, stroll past the cemetary, consult a Ouji Board, or tell spooky tales? After dark, of course.

Light illuminates our surroundings, and when light is on we have no need to suspect that anything is lurking nearby. We can clearly see it is not. But switch off that light and darkness closes in.

We humans are fairly rational creatures most of the time, and even in the dark we are pretty certain that nothing is lurking “out there” to get us. But there is a part of our brains that doesn’t sleep easy, and it’s linked to our very distant ancestors, who existed millions of years ago. Their survival, and ultimately our existence, relied on such autonomous workings of the brain.

The thrill and excitement we feel is a direct result of an adrenaline rush prompted by the fight or flight response. It is a sort of alert mechanism that operates without any direct thought. This response, which originates in a part of the brain called the amygdala, would have prompted our ancestors to run from potential danger, or prepare to face an attacker, even if nothing were there. Better safe than sorry.

The amygdala is like an early warning system, and it ensures that no time is wasted in thinking about what to do. Before we know what is happening, our autonomic nervous system — which controls many involuntary functions such as heart rate, breathing, and pupil dilation — is ramped up and the adrenal glands are prompted to get busy with their adrenaline production.

In rapid succession we may get goose bumps, a tingle up the spine, and then our blood pressure will rise, and our breathing will increase, causing us to become more alert. Heightened senses allow us to keenly monitor our surroundings, and we may tense up, preparing to run or stand and fight once our internal alarm is satisfied that something really may be there to harm us. It just takes one more bump, crack or rattle from the darkness beyond, to set us off.

This process can be fully appreciated if you happen to visit a haunted house attraction this Halloween. Pay attention to your involuntary reaction as you walk slowly down that darkened corridor, anticipating the shock and fright that’s waiting around the corner. You can try to control yourself, but that ancient part of your brain doesn’t really care what you think. It is interested in just one thing: your survival. Fear, real, or imagined, has turned it on. Better safe than sorry.

We feel a great sense of relief, and that rush of adrenaline, accompanied with an increase of blood and oxygen to the brain, gives us a sort of “high,” which makes it fun to get scared. Round that corner may lie danger, and you will be prepared to kick, punch, and scream, or quickly turn and run. You’re amygdala will see to that.

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