UBC Psychology prof Sheila Woody talks about our fascination with being spooked.
Why do we enjoy scaring others, and ourselves?
There are different elements that come with being afraid. There’s a cognitive part that has us on edge, or uncertain about what’s going to happen next. There’s the physical part where we experience arousal from fear. Certain aspects of fear can be fun, when things go fast or are full of surprises. When you are in a safe place, the arousal associated with fear can act as a break from the daily routine. With Halloween, it communicates to children that fear is not something to be avoided at all costs. It can actually be quite fun.
Why are some people afraid of certain things, like scary movies, while others are not?
While this is not fully known, a number of contributors can help explain why certain fears are not universal. First, history plays a factor. If you have had some trauma in your past, you are more likely to be afraid of reminders of that situation. Another factor is temperament. People who are higher strung are going to be more reactive.
How can fear be overcome?
Self-exposure. I used to have a terrible fear of heights, but I would make myself go out on fire escapes to conquer it. If something isn’t an objective threat, like encountering a bear in the woods, avoidance of scary situations can be counterproductive. It can actually make you more afraid.
Dr. Sheila Woody’s research focuses on the psychology of excessive fear and anxiety disorders, with a particular focus on the role of cognitive factors.
This Q and A was originally published by UBC News in October 2013.