Why Do We Like to Be Scared?


I hate being scared.

Since I was a little kid, I would cry (not laugh!) when someone startled me. To this day, I cover my eyes when scary ads come on TV and I avoid scary books, podcasts, and even news stories. 

I hate being scared.

Thus it’s with not a modest amount of apprehension that I anticipate the inevitable arrival of my least favourite holiday—Halloween. It’s always been a mystery to me. Why would normal people actually want to be scared? How could they enjoy that feeling of complete and utter horror? So this year, I decided that instead of just sitting back and judging all of you crazy people who like Halloween, I would actually do some research to find out if you are as pathological as I suspect you are.

Why do people like to be scared?

Evidently, when we experience a frightening episode our minds trigger a biological reaction in our bodies. We are launched into a “fight or flight” mode. Adrenaline surges through the nervous system, the mouth goes dry, the heart starts pumping hard, breath comes fast and heavy. If the situation is legitimately dangerous, we gear up to physically lash out or run like hell screaming. 

But if the situation is only apparently dangerous—say, someone, jumping out of the closet at us —then our mind (the cerebral cortex, to be exact) overrides “fight or flight” and dumps dopamine into our system. Yep, that’s right, I said dopamine—the pleasure chemical that makes us feel good after winning a game, or eating chocolate, or receiving lots of likes on Instagram. 

It turns out, this frightening combo of adrenaline and dopamine (and not some sick pathology) is exactly why people love to be scared. And that makes sense.

But only in the right context. 

In order to enjoy that fear-rush, a person has to have some sense of control over the situation. Walking through a haunted house; jumping out of an airplane with a parachute; watching a horror movie in a theatre. In each of these contexts, the brain can recognize that we are in a safe situation and give us that happy feeling we crave.

I guess I have to concede, then, that fear-seekers aren’t totally crazy.

So why doesn’t it work for me? 

Temperament, life experience, and the size of one’s frontal cortex all play into whether or not an individual experiences “safe” fear as pleasurable or intensely awful (or, a third option, simply boring). Let’s just say I’m not wired for it and leave it at that.

But for millions of thrill seekers, October 31st is a delightful holiday to be embraced with ghoulish gusto. In a few weeks, Canadians all around the country will dress up, go trick-or-treating, carve pumpkins, host parties, and probably have a few festive drinks. 

In fact, over the past 10 years, Canadians have ramped up their Halloween celebrations, surpassing even our southern neighbours in how much we spend per capita on our annual fear-fest. A recent survey revealed some pretty frightening numbers. On average, a Canadian will spend $42 on Halloween candy, $43 on decorations, and $52 on a costume. And for those of us who can’t resist a good party, we’ll shell out $169 big ones. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, even though I don’t personally enjoy being scared, I can now appreciate why perfectly normal people do enjoy it. And if I’m honest, I love themed parties and I’ll take any excuse to get friends together for a good time. 

But did you know these itemized averages add up to nearly a billion dollar industry? That’s right, Halloween takes second place only to Christmas in how much we spend on any single holiday in Canada. Haunted houses, pumpkin patches, haunted corn mazes, pop-up seasonal shops, house parties, costumes, candy, the billion dollar list goes on. And this a bit frightening.

Why? Because come November 1st, what do we have to show for our dread-filled revelry? We enjoyed the night, took some shocking (and adorable) pictures, and got a good hit of dopamine. But, what then?

I suppose you could ask this question about anything we do for enjoyment. Why go to a movie? Why visit a theme park? Why skydive, cliff jump, or eat a chocolate bar? Not everything we spend money on gives us a tangible outcome—the reward is often in the experience itself, isn’t it?

So why am I picking on Halloween (am I just bitter that I’m not wired to enjoy it)?

I think it’s the context that I find unsettling

As Canadians, we are known for being generous. Just last year, Canadians gave over $400 billion to charities and religious organizations. That’s incredible! Nearly $23 billion of that—6 per cent—went to international charities. But over the last ten years, data shows a steady decline in giving. And as a nation on the global stage, we are actually becoming known for our lack of generosity.

Canada comes in 16th place on the global stage of international aid. As a country, we commit $5 billion a year to development beyond our borders. That works out to only 0.26 per cent of GDP (that’s 26 cents on every $100 of national income), falling short of the United Nations’ giving goal for developed countries, 0.7 per cent. We’re trailing countries like Iceland and Italy. The only increase in foreign aid the government made last year was to keep up with inflation and economic growth.

So what does all this have to do with Halloween? If, as a nation, we chose to spend as much on international aid as we personally do on Halloween—a billion dollars—we could increase our foreign aid by 20 per cent! 

Now, of course, we know it doesn’t work that way—we can’t just e-transfer Halloween money to a government account and exclaim, “Trick-or-Treat! Now fix the world!” But maybe we can become a little more aware of how we’re spending our money and ask ourselves if it’s really necessary.

I remember as a child making our costumes every year (yes, even this Halloween Grinch dressed up for candy), and they were adorable! We wrapped my brother in tin foil to make him a knight; my sister slathered make-up and glitter on me to transform me into a princess; my dad put a silly, cheap mask on his head and made funny noises. As an adult, I bought a Dollar Store wig and borrowed friends’ clothes to become a rock star. In fact, I think part of the enjoyment of the holiday can be the challenge and pride of creating who you get to be for one night of the year.

The costumes, candy, and parties don’t necessarily have to be lavish for us to have fun poking at fear. With a bit of creativity, humour, and an old-fashioned sense of trickery we might still achieve the fear-factor and fun times Canadians clearly look forward to.

And in doing so, perhaps we can free up a few dollars to buck that downward giving trend and remind our government that we want the world to know Canada for the frighteningly generous people we truly are. 

About Eryn: Raised in West Africa, Eryn has a keen interest in issues of development and poverty, and how those intersect with God's message of justice and hope for all peoples. She enjoys poetry, preaching on occasion, and pumpkins. Eryn has worked as the Creative Copywriter at Food for the Hungry Canada since 2014.





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Food for the Hungry: Why Do We Like to Be Scared?
Why Do We Like to Be Scared?
Food for the Hungry
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