Recently, I took my 14-year-old to see the remake of Stephen King’s “IT.” When I bought tickets a few days in advance it seemed like a great idea. I felt like I was 14 again and while I enjoy a good thriller, horror is not so much my genre anymore. Twenty minutes into the movie I realized that I wasn’t trying to reconnect to my fourteen-year-old self, but rather trying to connect to my daughter.
So there I sat, watching this horrific clown terrorize these children, and kept thinking “Why am I watching this?!” My daughter and I ended up both enjoying the two hours spent on the edge of our seats, either with my hands covering half of my viewpoint or us looking at each other laughing at the stupidity of it all. But we were certainly scared the whole time. How do “being afraid” and “having fun” exist simultaneously? It’s a fascinating phenomenon when you think about it.
October is the month that most of us schedule the time to scare ourselves purposefully. For the pure joy and fun of it. Which is interesting, given the fact that every other month and every other day we situate our lives away from fear.
Think of the last time you watched a scary movie or walked through a haunted house. You likely experienced a cascade of physical and emotional responses similar to the ones I did while watching “IT.” Heart racing, body tense, breath is short and fast. The big scare comes, all of that energy releases, and you laugh or sigh with relief. It’s exhilarating. It’s exciting.
So what gives? When it comes to Halloween – or even roller coasters or skydiving – what is so appealing about this type of fear?
Let’s start with some science. Dr. Margee Kerr, a sociologist and self-described “scare expert,” says, simply, it makes us feel good. “Our arousal system is activated and triggers a cascade of ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters and hormones like endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline that influence our brains and our bodies.” This type of response is commonly referred to as fight-or-flight, what we experience as a result of being scared. However, when we know that we are in safe and controlled environments, this response feels good. We jump, scream, and then laugh it off.
When we’re dealing with other types of fear, the feeling typically isn’t something we’d describe as being “so much fun.” Fear of losing our job, for example. Fear of someone breaking into our home. The fear of walking alone at night. There is a stark difference between the two and it isn’t just that one experience is fake and the other is real. The difference is control.
Simulating fear feels amazing and thrilling because we choose it and we are in control of it. If a movie is too scary, we close our eyes or turn it off. We know the zombie jumping out of a closet in the haunted house is an actor, and probably a lovely person who would never hurt us. The roller coaster is built to go fast and before we know it we’re getting off.
Real fear feels terrifying and paralyzing because it is entirely out of our control. In fact, it is precisely our lack of control that contributes to the weight of most of our fears. If you could walk into your home alone at night knowing that you were in complete control of whether or not someone broke into your house, you’d probably never fear it again. If you lived your life the way you walked through a haunted house, knowing that all of the terrors were just illusions, you would live every moment just as fully and as curiously as you do each step through that house.
It is a perfect metaphor for certainty, one of the most powerful tools when it comes to fear. When we try to control, we are in fear of the unknown, and we are simulating a false sense of safety. When we have certainty, we walk through life knowing that everything is unfolding for our greatest good. When we nurture this trust in the process of our lives, we no longer need to control anything, much less fear it. When we place our trust in the Creator, we are free to enjoy each moment of our lives instead of anticipating every unexpected twist or turn.
Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, explains the latter as “wasting fear.” When you arrive at your home, day after day, consistently fearing that someone will break in, you’re wasting your fear response. You’re removing your intuition’s power to get your attention. Real fear is a helpful signal and when heeded and acted upon, it dissolves quickly. In other words, we are not meant to stay in fear. Trusting that our intuition will signal us when something is truly amiss allows us to live our life with ease and openness. Anything else is just fear that we create, that exists only in our minds.
The next time that you feel afraid, see if you can find the adventure in the experience. Replace the word “afraid” with “excited.” Examine the experience and ask yourself if your fear is real or if you’re needlessly creating it. Look for the illusion around you and then reconnect to the certainty that, once your fear subsides and the experience is over, you will be able to see it as the roller coaster ride that it was, and laugh.
THOUGHT INTO ACTION
Is there a Halloween event that you’re too afraid to try? A haunted theme park attraction or a midnight horror movie showing? Whatever it is, give yourself the experience of being scared for fun and see how it changes the way you view your fear.