Halloween Special – Why Does the Brain Love a Scary Holiday?

Why is a holiday filled with creepy ghosts, goblins, and haunted houses so much fun? Research in neuroscience may provide some answers.

The Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology recently teamed with the Institute of Diagnostic and Interventional Radiology at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, Germany, in an attempt to understand what happens in our brains when we view scary scenes.

While scanning subjects’ brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers showed people threatening clips from movies such as Aliens, Jaws, The Exorcist, The Shining, and Silence of the Lambs, as well as neutral scenes that do not normally illicit fear responses. Researchers also collected information on each subject’s tendency to seek out scary scenarios, as well as their reactions to the scenes to which they were exposed.

Compared to those who do not like getting spooked, those who seek out eerie circumstances showed less activity in the thalamus when exposed to neutral scenes and more activity in the visual cortex when exposed to scary scenes. The pattern of activity in these brain regions, involved in sensory processing, suggests that the enjoyment of scary situations may be partially explained by the enriched sensory experience that accompanies them.

Interestingly, the amygdala, which contributes to emotional processing, was not differentially activated by scary versus neutral scenes in either group. In fact, activity in the prefrontal cortex, important for executive functions, was the only brain area whose activity correlated with subjects’ reported anxiety during exposure to scary movie scenes.

Hyperactivity in the prefrontal cortex is associated with certain anxiety disorders that involve rumination, like obsessive-compulsive disorder. The worry that is experienced in these disorders may be physiologically and psychologically similar to the feelings invoked by scary movies, which would help explain the heightened prefrontal activity that is experienced during anxiety-provoking movie clips.

This type of neural activity is different from activity seen in disorders that involve intense fear, such as panic disorder or phobias, wherein prefrontal activity is actually diminished. Reduced prefrontal activity disinhibits the amygdala (which receives information from the prefrontal cortex) and leads to fear responses that are not as likely to be observed in a movie theater or a haunted house. Unlike what we typically observe in movie theaters or on Halloween, people exposed to phobia cues show extreme avoidant or escape behaviors, as if they were enduring a real biological threat.

Our brains are so sophisticated that they can usually distinguish situations that appear threatening from those that actually are. Though the scary scenes we see on Halloween may resemble scenes that would be threatening in other contexts, we are able to quiet our anxiety because other parts of our brain tell us that we are not in danger. But apparently the sensation elicited by stimulation that bears some likeness to threat can be lots of fun.

Happy Halloween!


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Image via g-stockstudio / Shutterstock.

Nisha Cooch, PhD

Nisha Cooch, PhD, is a Senior Contributor to Brain Blogger. She holds a PhD in neuroscience and is an expert in the neural basis of decision making. You can follow her on Twitter @NishaKCooch.
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