The Amygdala – Why We Get Scared and Like It

Well, not everyone likes getting scared, but why do so many of us dig walking through a haunted attraction, down dark roads, or watching scary movies? It doesn’t matter how well you know your environment, on a spooky night with the lights out that jacket tossed over the chair becomes a boogeyman. Blink and it’ll be standing by the bed…

We get scared because we’re human. Many of us, myself included, won’t immediately consider logical explanations when these things occur. Walking down a dark road at night for instance. Any unexpected and unfamiliar sound from the woods beside us, or the darkness behind us, makes us jump. We get goosey and run, or at least pick up the pace and get the hell out of there. So what’s going on?

Allow me to introduce the friendly autonomous sentinel in every human brain, the amygdala. This amazing piece of grey matter cues in on stimuli in our environment way before the rest of the brain is even remotely aware of it. They are tweaked through evolution to recognize facial characteristics, pick up on sounds and other things, even proximity alerts, like how close people are standing to us before we are consciously aware of it.

The Amygdala is the early warning system of the brain that helps us avoid danger. Without the evolution of the amygdala the human race would probably not exist. Our early hominid ancestors were able to survive the dangers of their time with the invaluable aid of this biological surveillance system.

When something potentially harmful or threatening is picked up by the amygdala it warns us by making us feel nervous or scared; causing the hair to stand up on the back of our neck, giving us goosebumps, raising our heart rate and triggering what is called the “fight or flight response” all before we are conscious enough of the situation to help ourselves. The amygdala wakes us up to the fact that we might be in danger and puts innate systems into action. If the threat is a false alarm we get a scare, but if the threat is real we have a chance at saving ourselves. We either run like hell or fight.

The thrill we experience when the threat is not real is the result of dopamine being released by the brain and causing us to feel good, even though we’re getting scared. It works differently for some people, which is why not everyone enjoys getting scared and some people absolutely love it.

Some of us stand in line outside a haunted attraction waiting to get the crap scared out of us. Some of us watch scary movies or read scary books at night. Some people enjoy jumping off of cliffs with parachutes attached.

The brain becomes overloaded with potential threats but you are ultimately aware that the threat is not real so you feel the fear as excitement due to chemicals in the brain.

A silhouette outside the window, creaking branches in the wind, unknown sounds, cold spots, footsteps, haunting moans and creaks, the earth rushing toward you at critical velocity. Roller coasters, bungee jumping, ferris wheels, jump scares in horror movies. This stuff scares us because our amygdalae is programmed to respond to perceived real threats. It doesn’t know you’re watching a horror movie. It’s interpreting sights and sounds, and assumes something very bad is going to happen.

The amygdala, and a little dopamine. That’s the recipe for thrill seekers and the rest of us who just like a little scare once in awhile. Remember your older sister jumping out as you walked down the hall? BOO! Whether you seek it or not, the thrill happens.

Many of us like listening to spooky stories as we sit around campfires with the dark night and forest surrounding us. We enjoy the stir of fear and excitement we feel. The same thing happens when we venture into a spooky location at night, or intentionally put ourselve in a scary situation.

Ever notice that every paranormal investigation takes place at night? Why would ghosts care what time it is? They don’t, we do. We get a bigger thrill being in a spooky, supposedly haunted house at night than during the day. That’s exactly why the crew from Finding Bigfoot ventures out at night. It’s more fun and exciting to look for scary things in the dark, try it sometime.

For an in depth look at the science of fear, and why we sometimes enjoy it, check out Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear by Margee Kerr (Paid ad).

So that’s that. Our amazing brains are the reason we get that rush of adrenaline, the excitement in fear. You guys have a great night now, I need to go lock my door. Just heard something outside. Probably the wind rattling the door handle, let me take a look….

Amityville Horror Ad Nauseum

James Brolin with axe, Amityville Horror
Still from The Amityville Horror. American International Pictures (AIP)
Holed up in an undisclosed location with my foot propped on a pillow after twisting my ankle chasing a Bigfoot off of my lawn, I cover surf Netflix TV Documentaries looking for maybe some UFO stuff, or other time-killing paranormal drivel that I may blog about. Instead I stumble upon two bowls of regurgitation on the Amityville Horror.

Margot KIdder boob shot - The Amityville HorrorTo be sure, The Amityville Horror — in it’s original form with kick ass James Brolin and cutes-as-shit Margot Kidder — is a classic movie! Freaked me out as a kid and I still like to watch now and then, even if it’s just to catch that scene where we see Margot’s booby. I love movies.

The prequel was kinda cool too, “…The Possession,” starring Rutanya Alda and Paulie, I mean Burt Young. Everything after that sucked, even the 2005 version. Mostly.

What I found today really sucked.

The Real Story: The Amityville Horror
This, an episode of the Smithsonian Channel’s “The Real Story” series, dredges up most of the same tired nonsense about the Amityville “haunting” but luckily also includes some testimony, which serves to debunk most of the tired nonsense.

Helpful is the interview with William Weber, Ron DeFeo’s defense attorney, who admits helping the Lutz’s concoct their story of a haunting at the hands of some evil, supernatural entity. Still, George Lutz defended his story until his his death in May of 2006.

You know, when I was a kid I read the book by Jay Ansen, watched the movie year or two later, got the crap scared out of me and had a good time, but even though the original printing of the novel claimed, “A True Story,” I never really thought any of it was real. I mean, come on! It’s fun to think that stuff and get a little spooked when you’re young, but at some point we have to admit to ourselves that the stuff is just entertainment and move on. Don’t we?

It’s sad that people actually go to their deathbed believing stuff like this; sadder yet that this guy knew it was hooey and went to his deathbed pretending.

So did Ed Warren. OMG, I can’t believe the Warrens take themselves seriously! Well, Lorraine now anyway. She has to be either a real clairvoyant, WHICH I DOUBT, or a real good bullshitter. Nah, she’s not that good, you can tell she’s full of shit. And maybe worse, she excels at bullshitting herself!

But even after all of it — the movies, documentaries, books, signings, lectures, public appearances — all of it quietly loading up her bank account, is she really going to say anything? Fuck no! She has to continue to delude herself or else someday someone who believed her baloney will find her and punch her in the face or something.

Anyway, it gets worse…

My Amityville HorrorMy Amityville Horror
Here is a boring documentary piece which regurgitates the same supernatural Amityville baloney but with a twist… it features amazing rock-star-like interviews with Daniel Lutz, stepson of George Lutz. Okay, they weren’t amazing, but this guy really thinks he’s something.

This documentary isn’t just boring, it’s really kind of sad. I was reading through reviews of My Amityville Horror on IMDB and was surprised to see so many positives like, “Engaging portrait…,” “Fascinating Case Study,” and then one that I finally agreed with, “88min of a guy making up stories for attention.”

Look, I won’t knock Daniel too badly, obviously the fellow has some demons on his shoulder and lived through some troubling stuff in his past. But what I witnessed watching this documentary is a guy who needs attention, and validation of some kind. As another reviewer stated at IMDB, “angry kid, turned angry adult.”

This poor guy has the wonderful displeasure of living a life post-Amityville-bullshit created by his dad. I’d really feel something for him if he just said, “You know what? It was all just bullshit. Nothing happened. My parents were in over their heads, couldn’t make the bills, my dad’s business was going down hill and they wanted out.”

Instead he perpetuates the bullshit and comes off as nothing more than a wannabe. The film fuels the wannabe aspect with snippets of Daniel playing his guitar and acting like some chain smoking tough guy in a Hollywood movie. It is, in a word, ridiculous. Oh, and Lorraine Warren is in this one too!!!

Daniel’s opening line of the trailer — there actually was a trailer for this thing — and this is verbatim, “I believe there is a such thing as evil and I was a victim of that,” maybe has more to do with his relationship with step-dad George Lutz than anything else.

Writer/Director Eric Walter seems just as full-of-self as Daniel, but hey, I’ll stop poking fun.

The stuff just didn’t work for me. It was rather pathetic, and I wish Daniel all the best moving on with his life now that he’s got some fame. Maybe he can move past his troubling childhood.

I’m probably going to hell for ripping shit on these people but hey, my ankle is feeling a little better, that’s good. Damn Bigfeet.

More to come from your’s truly, lone gunman of the apokryphunk.

Update on the State of the Strange

Still hearing that damned hum in my head, but it’s more toward the left side so I’m thinking it’s something with my ears, and not the subterranean tunnel construction rumbles emanating from some clandestine, mysterious underground base where a joint government/alien conspiracy is carrying out unthinkable lab experiments on abductees and breeding alien-human hybrids.

I’m not Fox but I taped an X on my window last night just to see if anyone would stop by, maybe give me some answers. I’m not expecting anything but I’ll keep you posted.

Welp, Halloween came and went and I failed to post anything remotely spooky for the season. My apologies. Seems that lately I’ve been focusing less on fantasy and more on reality. Shame on me. I should know better but I just can escape this sense of getting older and needing to take life a little more seriously.

Okay, that’s not wholly true. Taking life seriously should mean taking our fun just as seriously as we take our serious stuff. We have things that keep us busy, yes, and we shouldn’t let our imaginations take too much control, but there is a time and place for some form of imaginative escape.

Life should be about enjoyment, adventure, exploration and wonder. Some people go to plays, some go to movies or cover surf on Netflix, some like to watch Finding Bigfoot, Ghost Adventures or other paranormal stuff on TV (and why the hell not), and some people like to imagine that Bigfoot and ghosts are actually real.

I like to imagine too. Sometimes it’s fun to hike through the woods and pretend, a little, maybe, that there is a Sasquatch lurking somewhere just beyond where I can see. Or maybe, when my wife and I are driving along at night, it’s sometimes fun to imagine that a Dogman might leap out of the shadows alongside the road and give us a scare.

Many humans like to feel a little spooked, a little scared, that’s why Halloween Haunted Attractions are so hugely popular, and growing. People like to be scared. We like to imagine there might be something else, and have fun with it.

We just don’t need to believe it all.

Still, have a wonderful time with your imagination, it’s yours to pretend and enjoy what you will.

That’s my two cents on the State of the Strange for this week. Maybe next week I’ll post again, or maybe next year!

The Hooker Man Tale – One for Halloween

Well, it’s late now. Posting this so I don’t miss the mark this year for Halloween. What kind of paranormal website would this be if I didn’t post on Halloween? This year I thought I would recount a spooky tale from my state (New Jersey) when I was younger. Not specifically a Halloween tale, but still creepy I think. If you know any tales or lore specific to your area, post a comment and share.

The Hooker Man
This is one of those urban legends, but it always scared me. Maybe it was just because I was younger and easy to scare, maybe it was because three completely unrelated people told me the same story, and it was about a specific place, not just anywhere in the state, or world.
In the late 1800s a railroad worker was hit and killed by a train near Netcong,NJ. Legend has it that the Hooker Man is railroad conductor Samuel A. Crook, who actually was injured in High Bridge, NJ, but there is no report that I can find of his death by train.

As far as the Hooker Man, the story goes this way: he had been walking along the track at night with a lantern, maybe checking the track for debris so trains could pass safely the following day (hardly the work of a conductor). No trains were supposed to be using the track that night, but unfortunately one happened along and the man was hit.

His hand carrying the lantern was severed in the accident, and ever since a ghostly light has been seen moving up and down a specific stretch of track somewhere on the line through Netcong and Bud Lake, NJ. An eerie ball of light moving up and down the track on certain nights.

A friend of mine actually admits to seeing the light move eerily down the track, then fade away. Some speculate that the Hooker Man light may actually be ball lightning, a static electrical effect related to atmospheric conditions. I witnessed a ball lightning event years ago, actually two at once. I thought they were car headlights, one beside the other drifting down the road, then I realized they were about 35 feet or so above the ground. They must have been drifting down the power lines along the street.

As far as the Hooker Man is concerned, may claim to have seen the lights, and the story has made its way from one generation to the next. Now the railroad tracks are part of Colombia Bike Trail, and while there are certainly some strange stories about the trails, I haven’t heard of any Hooker Man sightings by bikers or hikers.

More Mystery Booms in Wilmington, North Carolina

This is an “ear-witness” account of the fabled “Seneca guns,” the common name used to describe mysterious booms now reported from around the world. My father sent me this report after hearing the booms while working on his house in Wilmington, NC, not far from Cape Fear, where these strange booms have been heard before. He contacted me a few times to comment and provide some more information, his story is presented here in the order it was received…

It was about 2 this afternoon and I was outside up on the ladder painting trim when the world shook for about 2 seconds with a loud boom, I could feel the ladder shake. Mom came running out thinking I had fallen off the ladder. I knew what it was… The Seneca Guns. These booms have been reported here since the 1800’s and nobody knows what they are. Over the years I have read investigative reports but they can not figure it out. No seismic record, no military exercises and certainly not airplanes. Weather was clear and bright with mid 60’s temp.

The term Seneca Guns came from James Fennimore Cooper in a short story he wrote in the 1800’s about unexplained booms heard around Lake Seneca in New York.

I have heard the noise about five times since we moved here. Interesting, with absolutely no explanation. There was no echo or follow up sounds. Just one big boom and tremor that lasted about two to three seconds. As I said, I have been through this at least five times in the last 15 years and the next day discussion is always the same.

The newspaper had a nice article about it today. Same old story, same old theories. Nobody knows for sure but they said that they checked the seismic records for yesterday and there was nothing. One theory is that it was a massive slide of the continental shelf but I would think that if it was related to land slides in the Atlantic there would have been a seismic tremor.

There was an interesting posting on the Weather Underground, one of my favorite sites for weather, about this with some good links.

The Next Day…

Friends of ours said that about 10:30 this morning (Saturday, 11/6) their apartment shook and there was a loud boom. All the neighbors were out trying to see what it was. I was here at my desk at that time and heard or felt nothing. When I mentioned the boom yesterday (Friday) at 2 they said they were in the condo and did not hear or feel a thing. It is a distance of about 10 miles.

Here is a report from a guy south of us who heard both booms and a third also:

“I felt a large one yesterday (11-5-2010) in Kure Beach around 2:15pm, large enough to rattle the front door and just felt another smaller one today (11-6-2010) around 10:10am, much smaller than yesterdays but still noticeable, then a smaller rumble around 10:20. I was just Googling to try and find out what it was and stumbled upon this article. Interesting phenomenon for sure.”

The two today were of a lower intensity which would explain why I did not hear them.

Other related articles online:
Star News Online: Booms rattle Southeastern NC residents for second time…
Scientists hear Mystery Boom from Space
Star News Online: Mysterious Booms rock Cape Fear region
Seneca Guns or Mistpouffers on Wikipedia

So, what do you think? Sonic booms? Geological? Atmospheric? Non-disclosed military exercises?

Strange Days Not Befalling Me…

I’ve been strange encounter free for some time now. I used to have such a great desire to believe in things that go bump in the night, things unknown and unexplained. The unidentified, and creatures of the outer edge. Sorry, Loren, had to borrow that one, it’s a nice title, and it sums up a lot of what we seek.

What we are really drawn to, in so many ways, is the outer edge. The places we can’t see into. The dark, the hidden. We love to imagine things greater than ourselves, mysterious, monstrous, or powerful. We can venture down any number of, what may seem logical, passages to come to conclusions that suit us. Often, the passage we choose is the one that supports what we believe. After all, why would we venture down passages that contradict what we hope is true?

Human’s often pick and choose data to support their beliefs, ignoring contradictory data. We jump to conclusions, make assumptions, and ignore the obvious if it goes against what we hold dear. Like a child, apprehensive, afraid to grow up and shed childish ways, many of us hold on to our beliefs, and remain conveniently ignorant so we can avoid hard truths.

I used to believe in a god, ghosts, UFO’s, Bigfoot, and other supernatural, paranormal or cryptozoological mysteries. A strong imagination loves to find adventure, wander, and wonder about strange, and amazing things. What if Bigfoot is real? What if aliens, or time travelers are visiting our planet in amazing spaceships? What if ghosts of the long dead can interact with us?

A common denominator, for me, is the sense of mystery and excitement I get from reading scary stories, or watching shows about UFOs or mysterious monsters. I love that stuff, always have. But I’ve come to recognize it as an entertaining sidetrack for my imagination, not evidence of a paranormal reality lurking behind some wispy, magical veil.

I’ve had strange experiences, heard noises, voices, seen strange lights, but I always looked for a logical explanation. I always knew their was some rational explanation for what I experienced, and I didn’t make the jump to supernatural, or unexplainable. Sure, the events were scary, and uncanny, but in that respect I consider myself lucky to have experienced them. Because they were neat, and entertaining.

I’m still entertained by ghost stories, the notion of extraterrestrials soaring overhead in UFOs, and by tales of mystery creatures like Sasquatch, Mothman, or Nessie. I still love it all, but I don’t believe it all. Could Bigfoot exist? Sure, it’s possible, thought not probable. Nessie? Less so. Mothman? I’d consider that an incredible stretch of the imagination inspired by sightings of known, but misidentified, creatures. It’s all still fun nonetheless.

There is nothing wrong with imagination, and being entertained by these things, but if one doesn’t admit they could be wrong in considering these things part of reality, they are not fully evolving as individuals. There are many reasons we believe, and not all of them can be turned off like a switch. Maybe people believe in such things because it makes them feel good, or because they are unwilling to admit that our world could be so mundane compared to imaginative fantasy.

Whatever the reason, when our world is explored through science, you find that it really is very far from mundane.

Scientists Discover Largest Orb-weaving Spider

There are real, live spooky things… like this new discovery, perfect for Halloween! Scientists have discovered the largest orb weaving spider!

It’s a good thing I won’t find them lurking around my house! I mean, spiders are cool, I’ll catch one every so often and stick it in a jar just to study it for awhile, but if I EVER saw a spider with a 4 to 5 inch legspan I wouldn’t go looking for a jar, I’d go looking for the door!

Scientists Discover Largest Orb-weaving Spider.

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.