It's the most wonderful time of year—horror film season.
Halloween, Friday the Thirteenth, Carrie, Psycho, Scream. Scroll through the "Horror" section of Netflix and it's a veritable feast of eye-popping entertainment that gets viewers' hearts racing and blood pumping. We love scary movies—they consistently perform at the box office, especially during the fall. But what is it about screaming our brains out that we love so much?
According to Margee Kerr, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh, being frightened releases adrenaline, endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine into the brain and body. That’s a serious cocktail of hormones and chemicals that changes our emotions, and when all combined basically results in giving us a natural high.
Remember when John Travolta stabbed Uma Thurman with a syringe of adrenaline in Pulp Fiction? That jolt of energy is exactly what this powerful neurotransmitter does to the body. Adrenaline is created in the adrenal glands during high-stress situations: Think being confronted by a predator, sitting at the top of a roller coaster before the epic drop, or waiting for the serial killer to be revealed in a scary movie. You might feel your heart rate increase, find yourself more focused, and even get a superhuman boost of energy. Adrenaline is tricking your body into thinking there is more glycogen in the muscles, liver, and pancreas then there actually is, resulting in heightened energy levels.
It's interesting to watch someone's body language when they're watching a scary movie: As the tension mounts, we protect our stomachs and hearts by turning to one side, drawing our knees up to our chests, or sinking below the seat in front of us.
There's a reason that contorting into unnatural positions to shield your eyes from blood and gore on screen doesn't leave you with an aching back, too. Thank the body's endorphins for decreased feelings of pain and stress. Endorphins, the neurotransmitters released from the pituitary gland, help reduce stress and can be as effective on pain as morphine. These little neurotransmitters have a strangely pleasant side effect—secretion of endorphins can lead to feelings of euphoria, which could explain why getting scared seems so fun.
One of the most surprising hormones that the body releases during a fear response is oxytocin. Responsible for feelings of love and bonding—new mothers release it to infants when breastfeeding—and it's often called the "cuddle hormone" because of its bonding effects. But it's also released in times of social anxiety or discomfort, like when you're watching Michael Meyers stalk an unknowing Jamie Lee Curtis. This could be the reason you reach for a friend's hand during particularly stressful scary movie moments—and why horror films make for a great date night event.
Ever been so scared that you suddenly had to run to the bathroom? It's not your imagination—it's your body's reaction to being frightened. You probably know about serotonin's relationship to depression and anxiety, but what about its role in your gut? One of the side effects of serotonin production is that it helps regulate the speed of the digestive system. If something literally "scares the crap out of you," you can thank serotonin!
The last neurotransmitter you've got to worry about before you step into your scary movie of choice? Good ol' dopamine. Commonly known for its role in producing feelings of love, dopamine is one of the main hormones released when we're terrified by something we see on screen. This hormone could be the answer to why some of us love the rush of being scared—and why we keep coming back for more.
Next time you sit down to watch a creepy movie, head into a Halloween haunted house, or read The Raven, don't blame your pounding heart and sweating palms on your imagination... blame it on your hormones.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho