A fascination with fear

Some people, more than others, love the feeling of being scared to death.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007 | 6:20 p.m. CDT; updated 2:59 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Gena Ryan, 14, tries to orientate herself in the Regulator Room of the Necropolis Haunted House on Saturday, while an actor (not in view) impersonating a mental asylum patient confuses the visitors with wrong directions. The room is designed to split up groups of friends, forcing the the participants to step out of their comfort zones.

COLUMBIA — A blue light flickers from behind the partially closed door. From deep in the building comes the unmistakable wail of a chain saw, and the door bursts open with a bang. A line of people stumbles out into the night, their mouths frozen open, the last screams morphing into relieved laughter that echoes through the cool air.

“That was so scary, but it was so fun,” one young woman shrieks as she runs to her friends waiting just beyond the stoop.

“My heart is beating so fast,” another adds excitedly.

On the other side of the building, the queue waiting to face the terror in the Neocropolis, a nationally acclaimed haunted house in downtown Columbia, overflows into the parking lot with intrepid thrill-seekers waiting to enter the “city of the dead.”

“Earlier in the season, we probably get in the low hundreds every night,” said Jennifer Schnell, one of the owners, who has worked at haunted houses for 13 years. “Now, we could get as many as thousands a night.”

Whether it’s peeking out at a horror movie from behind a couch pillow, listening to a friend whisper spooky stories around a campfire or even being hurtled through the air on a roller coaster, some people thrive on the rush of being frightened.

Raphael Rose, assistant research psychologist at UCLA, said people who seek out and enjoy being frightened are probably born with it, like a personality trait. Their experiences have taught them that fear will produce a psychological rush that they are attracted to. “I would say it’s not that they aren’t afraid, or that they like being afraid,” Rose said. “But I would say they focus more on the rush, not the fear.”

Haunted houses, horror movies and other forms of “thrill” activities allow people to choose the circumstances behind their fear and therefore control it, Rose said. Individual terrors are unpredictable, but the sensation of fear is expected. Some people enjoy the intense reactions and emotions that come with fear, as well the profound sense of relief they get when the terror ends.

“If we can figure out why we are afraid, we aren’t as afraid,” he said. “If someone is putting themselves into a haunted house intentionally, they have a sense of what they are getting into. People with personalities that are more uncomfortable with experiencing intense emotions like fear might not seek out something that would elicit some of those reactions.”

Frank Farley, psychologist at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association, said humans have always had a fascination with the “dark side.” Movies, books, video games, even the popularity of Halloween, reflect that fascination.

The adventuresome soul can also enjoy the novelty of unpredictable experiences, Farley said.

“It’s like people on a roller coaster,” Farley said. “It is so intense and can put your body through things you can’t even get in sex, and afterwards, it was like, ‘Whoa, what was that?’ It’s such an overwhelming experience that even its absence itself is kind of exciting. It’s novel to suddenly be off that thing or out of that theater to look at the normal world around you.”

But while many people enjoy the occasional scary movie or haunted house, others go out of their way to see how much fear they can handle. These people tend to thrive in situations that most people would find intimidating or unpleasant. They are less fearful of uncertainty, one of the main sources of human fear, than the rest of us. “The key ingredient is how you interpret it ­— as a thrill or as scary, fearful, anxiety,” Farley said.

Farley studies the “risk-taker” type of personality, which he calls a type “T personality,” or “thrill-seeker personality.” They are the kind of people who climb a mountain to see what’s on the other side. Most people, Farley said, are in the middle — willing to endure some fear and anxiety, but not as a way of life.

“I think that at least in this country, we tilt a little more towards what I would call ‘the big T end of the scale,’” Farley said. “We have more people who thrive on the unknown.”

And Halloween is the time of year for those people to get that adrenaline rush. At the Necropolis on a recent Saturday night, Kaitlin Viebrock laughs in between gasps as she half-runs from the building with her friend, Sarah Hickman. The young women, who also claim to watch lots of scary movies, like the “intense” feeling they get from being scared.

Viebrock calls it “an experience like no other.”

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