Every Halloween, my husband and I have the same hallowed tradition—we make a pumpkin pie and we watch a horror movie. And every year, two things are guaranteed to happen: I will remember that I don’t actually like pumpkin pie all that much and I will spend the majority of the film hiding behind a sofa cushion, too afraid to watch what’s happening on screen.
When it comes to the pie issue, I seem to learn my lesson which is why we never serve it at Thanksgiving (trust me, there are so many better options out there). But as for the horror movies, I apparently learn nothing because even when it’s not Halloween, I frequently find myself peeking through my fingers at a scary series or spooky film. And it’s not just that I spend the entire viewing experience with sweaty palms and a thudding heartbeat; I am tormented for weeks afterwards, often finding myself too scared to walk to the bathroom at night, lest some poltergeist or serial killer be waiting for me behind the shower curtain.
In other words, I do not like scary movies. And yet, I watch them all the time. What gives? In an effort to understand my motivations, I reached out to Dr. Sanam Hafeez, NYC neuropsychologist and Director of Comprehend the Mind.
I was expecting Dr. Hafeez to tell me that my penchant for punishment had something to do with my childhood (a birthday party where my father dressed up as a clown perhaps), but as it turns out, it’s more to do with my chemical makeup than my past.
“Oddly enough, the brain releases dopamine when we’re scared, almost as if we’re excited,” explains Dr. Hafeez. “This sudden dopamine rush explains why some people laugh when they get scared while walking through a haunted house or seeing a jump scare in a movie.” And this hit of dopamine is even more enjoyable in controlled environments (say, sitting on the couch in your living room) because even though you may feel like you’re in danger, your body knows you aren’t. “Therefore subconsciously, your body allows you to enjoy it.”
This hit of dopamine that comes from being afraid is a pretty common experience, but there may actually be some people who are simply more chemically inclined to watch horror movies. “Autoreceptors monitor the level of hormones and other chemicals in our bodies to regulate how much is released,” says Dr. Hafeez. “For those with more autoreceptors, you may release more dopamine and adrenaline when you’re scared, rather than someone with less.” In other words, my ‘liking’ of scary movies may be more related to my particular brain chemistry rather than my character.
Speaking of the brain, there’s a lot going on in there while you’re watching the latest episode of Midnight Mass (and, yes, of course I watched it and I’m still thinking about it).
“The part of your brain that initiates your response is the amygdala, which affects not only your brain but your heart, lungs and hormones,” explains Dr. Hafeez. “When the opening credits come on, your body is relaxed, turning off its motor sense since no harm is detected at the moment. However, once the suspenseful music starts up, you may begin to feel your muscles tense up as your brain signals your body to prepare for potential harm. You may even feel as if everything around you disappears, and this is because your peripheral visual processing decreases as your central focus increases while watching the movie.” (Does that explain why I can easily eat two slices of not-so-good pumpkin pie without even realizing what I’m doing?)
Then when the jump scares start, your brain may cause you to physically jump out of your seat because it never entirely turns off those motor senses that keep your fight or flight response ready. And so when I grab the nearest pillow to cover my face with, this is perhaps my brain’s way of “protecting” myself by “hiding” from danger. (Not exactly the best strategy—as any scary movie viewer knows, attempting to hide from the killer is basically the equivalent of running up the stairs when being chased, i.e., never a good idea.)
Here’s another theory from the neuropsychologist about why I insist on torturing myself by queuing up The Haunting of Hill House. “A part of you may also enjoy feeling like you accomplished something and conquered a fear,” suggests Dr. Hafeez. “However, the lingering fear could be your brain thinking what’s happening in the movie will happen to you, which is why you hate them.”
In other words, it’s complicated. But now that I better understand the inner workings of my brain while watching a scary movie, does that mean that I’ll have enough sense to skip the experience this year? Or, better yet, will I be able to actually sit back and enjoy the show? I guess I’ll just have to wait to find out. If you need me this Halloween, you know where to find me—clutching a pillow with pie crumbs on my face.