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The Biomedical Engineering blog is the place for conversation and discussion about topics related to engineering principles of the medical field. Here, you'll find everything from discussions about emerging medical technologies to advances in medical research. The blog's owner, Chelsey H, is a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) with a degree in Biomedical Engineering.

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All You Need Is a Good Scare

Posted October 23, 2012 2:02 PM by Chelsey H

A Halloween riddle for you: Why didn't the skeleton cross the road?

Have you ever thought of the health effects of being scared? This time of year is full of creepy decorations, horror movie marathons, and haunted hay rides. Behavioral researchers have been observing people's reactions to and obsessions with horror movies, leading to the term the "horror paradox."

According to Joanna Cantor, Ph.D and director of the Center for Communication Research at University of Wisconsin, Madison, most people like to experience pleasant emotions. But this leads to a need to understand the impact of horror movies on adults and children.

When people watch horrific images, such as someone being chased with an axe, they have a physical reaction similar to if they were being chased. They experience an increase in their heart rate by as much as 15 beats per minute, their palms sweat, their skin temperature drops several degrees, their muscles tense, and their blood pressure spikes. Our brains haven't adapted to watching movies so our brain, and therefore our bodies, react as if the images on the screen are real.

Professor Glen Sparks from Purdue University studied the physical effects of violent movies on young men. He found that they more fear they felt, the more they claimed to enjoy the movie. Sparks believes that this goes back to our tribal ancestors where males have a motivation to master threatening situations and overcome hardship as a tribal rite of passage.

There are other theories of why people seek out violent entertainment, such as a morbid curiosity, or as a way of coping with actual fears or violence. Stephen King claims that they act as a "safety net for our cruel or aggressive impulses." But media researchers have shown that this isn't the case after experiments showing college men violent movies made them more hostile.

Still, there is such thing as a "type T" personality. These thrill seekers thrive on the uncertainty and intensity associated with activities most people don't enjoy. Males, from late adolescence to their early 20s, make up a larger percentage of these type T personalities. A typical explanation for why thrill seekers and regular folks can watch these movies is because they are willing to endure the terror in order to enjoy a euphoric sense of relief at the end. When you're scared your body goes into "fight or flight" mode. This causes an increase in adrenaline throughout the body. When there isn't any real danger your body feels the adrenaline as euphoria. There is also the possibility that as people become more desensitized to violence in the media, they'll become more desensitized to violence in real life.

Children especially should stay about from horror films. According to one study 60% of students had sleep or waking disturbances caused by something they had watched before age 14. The fears manifested themselves in nightmares, anxious feelings, and aggressive behavior. And these fears don't always dissipate- more than a quarter of the students said they were still fearful. Researchers think this link is because film memories produce similar reactions to those produced by actual trauma and therefore may be just as hard to erase.

I haven't used a baby picture in a while and I'm pretty sure this is what I would look like if I ever watched a scary movie. Image Credit: Colleen Blake Miller

About one-third of the population would prefer to avoid scary movies, and one thing I know for sure is that I won't be watching any scary movies this Halloween season.

Answer: He didn't have the guts!

Resources

Why We Love Scary Movies

Why Do People Love Horror Movies? They Enjoy Being Scared

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#1

Re: All You Need Is a Good Scare

10/24/2012 4:17 AM

Imagine the horror of inadvertently eating laxative chocolate in response to an unsolicited Trick-or-Treat application!

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Re: All You Need Is a Good Scare

10/24/2012 9:00 AM

My wife literally jumps if she gets startled/scared while watching a movie. Then she starts to hang onto me, which sometimes leads to jiggy-jiggy. Most times, she'll cover her eyes if she knows something's coming and look to me for the "all clear". The other night she didn't see "it" coming and her drink went flying through the air. We had to pause the movie to vacuum up the chips. Too funny for me, not so much for her. My kids want to see a horror movie, but no way. The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter is as far as they'll get for now.

One of my friends, a few years older than me, recalls how people were passing out while watching The Excorcist when it was first in the theaters. The brains' way of protecting its host. Such horrific imagery amplified for me because I'm religious. But the soundtrack, Tubular Bells, is cool!

I love a good joke, but I'm never again going to do this to ANYONE...I came home from work early one day [shortly after getting married and before we had kids] to surprise my wife. She usually got home around 4pm. Anyway, I waited in the basement with a wire brush and a rubber mallet. I waited until she had settled herself, waiting for ME to come home. I proceeded to bang/scrape on the air ducts, lightly at first. "Steve of The North, is that you?", sounding a little scared. Silence, then more banging/scraping along the airduct, moving closer to where she was above me. Then, her footsteps approaching a vent to have a closer listen. One loud bang on the duct. She screamed, the most blood-curdling scream I have EVER heard, then she was out the back door. That was the most shameful moment of my married life, scaring the crap out of the woman I love. What started out as a playful little joke turned into horror for her.

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Re: All You Need Is a Good Scare

10/24/2012 12:03 PM

I concur about the "playful little joke." There is something perverse in us that allows us to laugh at "funniest home videos," (where we are in disbelief that no injury resulted) and to people being surprised and jumping or screaming. And most of us have indulged in it at some point in our lives -- usually growing up. But all it takes is one serious consequence -- those incidents where people really got hurt and weren't video'd or the video was never submitted due to the end result not being funny because of those consequences -- to help cure the tendency.

Getting scared from a movie is different. People anticipate being frightened and willingly subject themselves to it. (Kind of. We usually don't know where in the movie we are going to be scared, because anyone we know who has seen it doesn't want to "spoil" (?) it for us.) It's similar to people who love very hot food and consider the sweating about the face, and tearing of the eyes, part of the enjoyment. I'm one of those. Go figure.

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#3

Re: All You Need Is a Good Scare

10/24/2012 10:36 AM

My best scaredy jumps was when my first kid was tiny and just about toddling. He had unbeknownst to us worked out how to climb out of his cot .
We were in the living room and I heard a noise in the hall, I opened the door to see him stood there in the doorway in his white nightshirt looking like a little ghost.
My wife laughed her head off at the way I jumped. Lucky escape really, he'd managed to topple out of the cot onto our bed then down onto the floor, empty the contents of the waste bin (without eating it all) and then come through the door (left ajar so we could hear). Just as well he didn't get Mrs Cat's cosmetics and stuff.

I had to do a temporary fix of the cot by lowering the base! (there, you see, even got some engineering content!)
Del

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