Nerd Talk: Fight or flight: The effect of fear

Megan Roth’s bi-weekly column on pop culture and all things nerdy.

Growing up were you afraid of the thing living under your bed? Or maybe it was the monster in the closet, the one that would only appear if you had closed the closet doors?

Maybe you were afraid of creatures which were created to keep children in line, or in bed as the case may be. The Oogie-Boogie Man is one such example.

Or maybe it was aliens, the wolf-man or giant spiders.

Everyone had these fears growing up, and sometimes beyond adolescence, and they often were told through stories from an older counter-part, like say a sibling.

I’ve never been one for horror movies, but I have always loved and been fascinated by spooky things. I have my own fears, of course; heights, spiders and confined spaces are a few. But the spooky has always been thrilling.

For as long as I can remember I have loved the supernatural and creatures of legend. Vampires are interesting, the wolf-man a curiosity. Even Frankenstein’s monster was novel. But these didn’t necessarily scare me like they are supposed to.

Perhaps it is because these “creatures of the night” are fantasy and, while I tended to live my life partly in a fantasy world, I knew logically they couldn’t be real.

There were also rules in place to protect me against the supernatural. Vampires, for instance were unable to enter a house without express permission from the person who lives there.

These rules and structures to the supernatural calmed me, and ensured me I would be safe from the evil lurking in the night.

For me, the things of nightmares were all too real, and tangible; fears that could touch and affect me in my waking days.

I prefer horror and scary movies about things I can easily associate with the supernatural and fantasy, because those don’t cause nightmares the way a slasher film does.

I will admit, in the past, things that have no reason to scare, have absolutely given me nightmares. I’m a little ashamed to say as a young child the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters gave me nightmares. There was also a old, gnarled tree in my backyard that gave me the recurring nightmare that it was alive and would eat me if I went near it.

Silly things really, but they affected me greatly. For example a small part of me is wary of old, knobby trees.

Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear, says humans have used fear since the birth of the species, through various means.

“And we’ve done this for lots of different reasons — to build group unity, to prepare kids for life in the scary world, and, of course, to control behaviour,” Kerr told The Atlantic in 2013.

The reason fear and purposely scaring each other has become a profitable business model is because of the flight or fight response humans have. This response increases the heart rate, which increases the oxygen in the body.

The hormone epinephrine (which you probably know as adrenaline) is released during these times, which creates the feeling of shaking in your boots while watching a scary movie.

Adrenaline gets you ready for whatever your choice is, to fight the threat or run for safety.

Knowing this, maybe when I watch those supernatural thrillers and horror spectacles my fight or flight response is telling me to stand my ground, whereas, slash and hack movies trigger the flee response.

“To really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we’re in a safe environment,” Kerr said in the same interview. “It’s all about triggering the amazing fight-or-flight response to experience the flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, but in a completely safe space.”

Despite the psychology and biology behind fear, Halloween is the perfect time to test your fight or flight reflexes by watching a few horror movies.

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