By Olivia K Pitkethly, MA, LMHC

It is that time of year again. Seems like just yesterday we were celebrating this season. The delectable treats, the incredible decorations, the festive attire and the fun-filled events that can make anyone feel absolutely …

Frightened.

That is right. I am not talking about Thanksgiving or Christmas. I am talking about America’s third favorite holiday — Halloween. The day we celebrate the scary, relish the fear and keep coming back for more, year after year.

Why do we do it? Why do people enjoy being scared? According to studies from the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt University, it is literally all in our heads. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to positive and negative emotions alike, is released when we experience fear. Some individuals have brain cells that do not release dopamine as well as others, and end up hanging on to the dopamine for longer periods of time. These individuals end up with higher levels of dopamine, which means that they receive more benefit from the fear than others. Those who do not create high levels of dopamine after experiencing fear can eventually become desensitized by repeated exposure to scary images or situations, but they will still not receive that benefit that makes them seek fear like others do.

“Fear can be beneficial because it can motivate you to seek answers, it can excite you, it can prepare you for the world,” said Julie Williams, licensed mental health counselor. Williams herself enjoys being scared. She regularly attends Halloween Horror Nights, volunteers for a haunted hospital and engages in paranormal investigations in her free time.

“For me, getting scared is an adrenaline rush,” she said. “My tolerance for fear is pretty high, probably because I’ve grown up in haunted houses, watching horror movies, and had supportive family also interested in it. It takes a lot to scare me at this point, so I seek it out and welcome it.”

Williams noted that there is a difference in being afraid of actual versus perceived threats. For instance, living people scare her more than ghosts. Williams said she would rather spend a night in a haunted location rather than her own home because the thought of being burglarized gives her anxiety, while she knows that ghosts cannot hurt her.

Halloween provides a safe environment for people to be scared versus placing yourself in a dangerous situation. Anticipating the next scene in a horror movie is much different than being alone on a dark, unfamiliar street. Chatham University sociologist Margee Kerr studies the effects of fear on individuals. She noted that surviving a scary movie or a trip to a haunted house can boost a person’s confidence and self-esteem. There is a sense of reward in knowing that you conquered your fear.

Williams also said that a person’s belief system has an impact on fear. Whether you believe that something can hurt you or not can make a difference. “I think people like fear and go to haunted houses because they WANT to believe in something more and are searching for answers that there is more to life than in the physical world,” she said.

Looking for some fun ways to be afraid this Halloween? Try one of the following!

  • Go see a scary movie.
  • Check out a local haunted house or corn maze.
  • Visit a real-life haunted house, like Herlong Mansion Historic Inn and Gardens in Micanopy, Florida.
  • Go ghost hunting.
  • Sign up for a ghost tour.
  • Get a group of friends together and sign up for an escape room.
  • Participate in Halloween festivities at a theme park, like Halloween Horror Nights or Howl-O-Scream.