A desire to experience fear at haunted houses and amusement parks may have deep roots in biology and psychology. (Image source: Flickr/Nikki Knight.)

The science of fear: USC Dornsife folklorist unpacks the thrill

Anthropology professor Tok Thompson delves into fear’s biological and psychological allure.
USC Dornsife News Staff

What’s new: More than 1,300 people recently clamored for a night in a haunted Chattanooga, Tenn., hotel room, underscoring our shared obsession with fear, reports National Geographic.

Why it matters: Our love of fear and being frightened reaches beyond Halloween fun. It’s rooted in complex biological and psychological responses. When we face fear, our bodies release chemicals such as adrenaline, dopamine and cortisol, leading to feelings of satisfaction or even triumph when the threat subsides.

Expert take: Haunted houses and scary movies often target teenagers and young adults.

  • Says USC Dornsife’s Tok Thompson, professor (teaching) of anthropology: “That’s the age demographic really trying to come to grips with mortality — what do they fear and how brave they can be.”
  • Thompson notes that facing fears is part of adulthood across cultures.

The big picture: Embracing fear, especially in controlled environments like haunted houses, can be a way to master and survive threatening situations, giving us a sense of victory.