By Katie Linton
Halloween is just around the corner and this time of year there’s no shortage of places to go for some stomach-churning fun, spooky attractions, or just a good scare.
People seek out these hair-raising attractions for the thrilling, euphoric, and accomplished feeling they gain as they successfully leave an event without having wet their pants.
Last year alone approximately 28 million people in the U.S. visited a haunted house in the month of October according to a TED Talk with Margee Kerr.
Events like Fright Nights, a collection of haunted houses, rides, and live shows at the Pacific National Exhibit (PNE) in Vancouver, B.C. see upwards of 4,600 guests per day.
More locally there’s Bleedingham, a short horror film festival at the Pickford Film Center in downtown Bellingham where people can submit their original homemade short films.
Gary Washington, the co-founder and curator of Bleedingham said how the event “usually sells out in 24 hours, [the] theater capacity is about 150 not to mention people just hanging about in the lobby during the event.”
But what is it that draws people to events where they pay to get scared?
Allegra Ringo in her article, “Why Do Some Brains Enjoy Fear?” in The Atlantic magazine said scientifically speaking, some people are attracted to fear because “one of the main hormones released during scary and thrilling activities is dopamine.”
Dopamine is also known as the “happy hormone,” it’s released by the body as a response to fear, this is part of the “fight or flight” response that has been passed down through generations as a survival mechanism. It works by shutting down critical thinking, protecting from feeling pain, and energizing a person. It’s a similar response to when a person becomes excited or happy, so depending on the context of the scary situation, being frightened can give a person the same euphoric feeling they get when someone’s elated about something.
The fight or flight response to fear is contextual, if someone’s in a life-threatening situation the release of dopamine is a survival mechanism, but if you’re in a safe environment while still experiencing fear, that hormone release will be solely pleasurable.
That’s what makes attractions like Fright Nights and Bleedingham so popular.
“People love to get scared, I think, and we provide them with a safe environment with professionally trained people to do that,” said Eddie Tabakman from the PNE’s media relations department.
Fright Nights caters to whatever your horror style may be. It runs from Oct. 7 to Oct. 31 and includes seven haunted houses, which vary in theme. The Insane Asylum is Fright Nights’ most popular attraction; last year it saw over 52,600 guests over the course of the event.
The other haunted houses are Darkness, Fear, Car-N-Evil, the Haunted Mansion, Keepers Doll Factory, and Hollywood Horrors. Visitors can pick their poison then leave with dopamine firing off in their brains, a sense of accomplishment after having made it through the evening, and maybe only partially wet underwear.
Bleedingham is a smaller scale event, catering to people who not only enjoy a little scary Halloween fun, but also see “an opportunity for creatives to flex their skills in telling a story digitally (while) others are drawn to it because they want to see what the local community has cooked up. Some people go just for the anthology style spooky tales that we screen,” Washington said.
With events such as Bleedingham there’s an aspect of tradition as well, people have been telling stories, including scary stories, for thousands of years. It builds unity within a group and lets listeners, or viewers in this case, experience fear as a whole.
But only the safe and enjoyable fear, rather than a natural survival response to something that’s truly threatening.
Washington said “I do believe that people are hooked on dopamine that comes from asinine fear. Like maybe not the fear of losing a home or disease, but a fear of something so fantastical that it is easily compartmentalized.”
Events such as Fright Nights and Bleedingham provide the same attraction and response. They both present people with an opportunity for a scare, but in a safe environment. A safe environment where visitors can gather together, enjoy rushes of dopamine through their system, and leave with a sense of accomplishment and a whole lot of Halloween spirit.