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What we fear


Horror movies and ghost stories were once virtually exclusive to Halloween, the day in which thrill seekers indulge in haunted houses with chainsaw-wielding, masked serial killers who invoke blood-curdling screams.

But not anymore.

Society’s lust for a good scare now stretches well beyond a single day of the year. For some, being scared — aka “in fear of” — is a virtual constant, controlling their every move. For others, fear resides somewhere between an uncomfortable, eye-shifting caution to an outright paralyzing nightmare. The smallest minority takes it even one step further and turns fear on its heels from a negative, unpleasant emotion to a sought-after adrenaline rush.
Regardless, they are all forms of fear. So what exactly is fear?

The psychology of fear
Fear is one of the basic emotions common in many species, most notably humans. Although it may be a feeling many of us never want to experience willingly, it is a necessary survival tactic that helps us avoid dangerous or life-threatening situations. Psychologists who have studied it have learned that fear has evolved as humans have over the years.

“Our current understanding is that our brains have this fear module that is really evolved over time,” explained Zlatan Krizan, an associate professor of Psychology at Iowa State University. “It helps us deal with a variety of dangers that were important evolutionarily. These could be flood, predators, attacks from other people…anything that could come around the corner.”


It makes sense that fear would have started as a basic instinct of self-preservation. Krizan explains that these original fears were evolutionarily relevant because of their evident dangers. For example, falling from a high distance could kill you, so a fear of heights is logical.

Since many common fears have roots from hundreds, even thousands of years ago, Krizan says humans today have “evolutionary baggage” with fears that were relevant back then but aren’t so much today.

It’s the same for two of the most common phobias today, spiders and snakes, which can be poisonous — although Krizan is quick to point out that those are far less harmful than many other stimuli that we do not fear, such as guns.

“The idea is our brain has evolved to be especially sensitive to those kinds of stimuli,” he said. “And we can see that even today, even though there are other things that are much more dangerous for us — (like) guns, but we don’t have gun phobias the way we have snake phobias. And that speaks to the evolutionary path of the evolved fear response.”

Nearly one-third of adults are believed to have an intense fear of snakes.

Nearly one-third of adults are believed to have an intense fear of snakes.

Spiders and snakes are still the No. 1 and No. 2 (respectively) most common phobias in 2015, according to, as one Des Moines resident can attest to.

“My biggest fear would be snakes,” said Patricia Gutierrez, who is originally from Mexico but now lives in Des Moines. “I can’t even see them when I go to the zoo or anything — even if there’s glass. I don’t want to get close to them at all.”

Gutierrez explains that her fear likely stems from a time in grade school when a fellow student terrorized the girls in her class with a snake.

“I’m originally from Mexico, so the schools there are outdoors. So this kid found (a snake), and they decided to chase the girls with it. So ever since then…I’ve been afraid of them.”

The idea of running into any kind of snake — poisonous or not — is panic inducing for Gutierrez and many others, even though the chances of being hurt by a snake is extremely rare in most places. In fact, according to “Animal-Related Fatalities in the United States,” more people die from bee and wasp stings than from venomous spiders. The Polk County Conservation website reports that only four poisonous snakes reside in Iowa, out of the 27 total species found in the state.

And, as Krizan noted, many of the things that were dangerous and threatening to the human species hundreds of years ago when their bodies were evolving are not problems anymore.

Still, the fear remains.

Emotions over logic
Fear does not leave much room for logic in the landscape of our minds. As Krizan explains, people are usually aware that there is no real threat of danger associated with a particular fear — but that doesn’t stop them from reacting to it.

“A lot of these fear reactions are very automatic and non-conscious,” he said. “For example, in these studies you can show people certain kind of fearful stimuli so briefly that they cannot consciously identify or remember them. Yet, their bodies — for example, the sweat on their palms — will show a fear response.”

Logically, most people who fear spiders or other creatures know that there is no imminent danger in, say, finding one in the shower. Yet they still might have an emotional response to it, such as waiting for someone else to come and kill it.

Gutierrez says she hasn’t had much experience with snakes since her traumatic experience in school — mostly because she actively tries to stay away from them — but on the off chance she does encounter one, her fear takes over.

“There was this one time that I was walking (on a sidewalk, and a snake) just came out from the grass. It was like that close,” Gutierrez said, measuring about a foot of distance between her foot and the imaginary snake. “It was just like a regular snake, like those garden snakes. So I know that they’re not bad or anything, but just by seeing them — I just got super scared, and I (had a panic) attack. I was crying.”

While much of Gutierrez’s fear can be blamed on the negative experience from her youth, it should also be noted that much of this “evolutionary baggage” humans carry is brought on by social learning, such as children seeing their parents being afraid of something. While it may not be instinctual or logical for a child to be afraid of water, seeing the look of panic on a parent or peer can teach them to fear it.

One of the most common emotional responses brought on by fear is the fight-or-flight mechanism. When this happens, the heart rate increases, and the body experiences a rush of adrenaline.

“Your body’s in this state of readiness to deal with whatever,” explained Krizan. “Either to run away or to fight, if needed. Often, being afraid is a part of this wider physiological bodily response that happens when we need to face threats.”

He adds that it’s this response that gets people riled up in a threatening situation — a feeling of butterflies in the stomach and time standing still.

There is also another element to fear’s emotional response in the body, and that is the freeze response.

“Think about if fighting would definitely get you killed, and escaping is impossible, a lot of times animals may freeze. So they play dead,” Krizan said.

In 2014, 25.3 percent of Americans said public speaking was their biggest fear.

In 2014, 25.3 percent of Americans said public speaking was their biggest fear.

These are the three responses that come into play in about every threatening situation. The choice depends on the person being threatened, the threat itself and the likelihood of escaping. And while people have to choose between fight or flight, they may not always have a choice in the “freeze” response, which is where the phrase “paralyzed with fear” comes from. People may be in a state of shock, feeling so overwhelmed by the situation that they just don’t know what to do next. Krizan said this type of reaction is most common in moments of real physical danger.

But, while fear may result in shock for many people, there is still the one main reaction most people have to dangerous scenarios.

“If you’re really afraid,” Krizan adds, “you’re gonna get the hell out of there.”

Rational vs. irrational
If we really think hard about it, many of us could probably come up with at least a couple of irrational fears that we’re harboring without real cause. Getting lost in space despite never having even seen a rocket, checking for monsters in the closet or murderers behind closed shower curtains.

Of course we know there is very little chance of a serial killer with an ax lurking in the shower and waiting to pounce — but that doesn’t stop us from thinking it. We might not act on the fear, and our bodies typically won’t have the same physiological response, but the thought is still there.

Another aspect of fear that toes the line between rational and irrational and plays into this idea of what might be hiding in the shadows is anxiety, which Krizan says is more of an “undefined fear.”

“It’s not a matter of danger out there, but there may be a problem in the future,” he added. “And then you just have this sense of uncertainty and anxiety.”

So while it can’t exactly be classified as fear because there is no real threat involved, anxiety is essentially the feeling of worry involved with the unknown, and it has become more of a problem for our society in the 21st century as people allow their minds to be consumed by questions of what could happen.

“A lot of us live relatively safe lives, right?” Krizan said. “So the chances we’re going to get attacked by a bear or mugged on the street are very low for us here in Iowa. But…the fact that you may lose your job, or that your close one might die — all these kind of uniquely human worries — tend to generate a kind of bodily response similar to fear, and those can wear on us over time.”

The human mind is highly impressionable. Imaginations run wild with unlikely scenarios for many reasons, such as what we see on TV.

In general, studies have found that the more TV a person watches, the more fearful he or she tends to be. Krizan reasons that this is because the media often plays on the human response to fear but turns it into a pleasurable experience by wrapping it up nicely by the end of the show or movie.

A 2014 poll showed people feared zombies more than clowns or ghosts.

A 2014 poll showed people feared zombies more than clowns or ghosts.

“When you think about how most Halloween stuff works — haunted houses, horror movies — the key thing is (how) they abuse our innate fear response by doing (something scary or fearful) in a safe situation,” he explained. “So we have this automatic fear response — we get this fear when Freddy Kruger comes out, but we immediately realize that he’s not real, he’s not going to get us. So we go to giggling and laughing and having fun.

“This back and forth is such a key part, for example, of the pleasure in fear that we find,” continued Krizan. “But the only reason we find it (fun) is because that initial fear reaction is right away replaced by our sense that it is only fictional.”

Craving the fear
Halloween is the time of the year when fear is not just expected — it’s desired. Movie theaters and TV channels are saturated with gory films. People spend money to let zombies and ghosts jump out at them in haunted houses or to spend a night in the home where a massacre took place. Why would anyone pay to be scared?

The same reason people pay to jump out of planes — they crave the rush.

This category of people who genuinely enjoy the thrill of being scared tend to embrace and enjoy the fight-or-flight response and the adrenaline rush that comes along with it. The same can be said for athletes who do extreme sports or even kids who love roller coasters.

In an article published by Medical Daily in 2013, the author wrote that this need for arousal is “typically caused by two things: testosterone and the body’s response to the neurotransmitter dopamine.”

Yes, the same chemical that’s at play in situations of sex and addictions is at work in our bodies when we feel scared, too. Dopamine helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, but it also helps to regulate emotional responses. There is a certain kind of dopamine receptor that is associated with sensation-seeking people. The heightened stimulation — a culmination of increased heart rate, higher blood pressure and respiration process — tends to linger for a while after the event, even if it’s just from watching a horror movie. Its effects can also result in making other, more normal, experiences seem just as intense.

It is estimated there are more than 1,200 haunted attractions that charge admission in the U.S.

It is estimated there are more than 1,200 haunted attractions that charge admission in the U.S.

Thrilling activities can cause hormones to release more dopamine in some people than in others, which explains why some people truly enjoy feeling scared and others do not.

The key to enjoying a scary situation, though, is knowledge that a safe outcome is ahead.

“We like thrills and fears, but only if the circumstances are (that) pretty quickly we can learn that they’re not real dangers,” explained Krizan. “Nobody’s come up with a haunted house where you start, then they scare you and touch you and then you’re really lost and don’t know where the exit is. Nobody’s doing that; that would make people really afraid.

“You know that you’re not really going to get hurt when you go to the haunted house.”

When people know a safe outcome is ahead, they are free to experience all the fear in a fun way, and, as a result, they might even end up feeling more alive from the exhilaration.

Haunted houses, horror movies and other classic Halloween activities are all about testing their audience’s limits. And for those thrill-seekers who crave that experience, fear is just another mental limit to challenge.

“Sometimes, being in the presence of potential threat or danger is another way to kind of get your rocks off, be it skydiving or base jumping or even being scared,” Krizan said.

The haunted attraction industry generates an estimated $300 to $500 million in ticket sales each year.

The haunted attraction industry generates an estimated $300 to $500 million in ticket sales each year.

As for Gutierrez ever feeling that exhilarating high from facing her fear, she says there’s no chance of that happening.

“A lot of people say that if you get close to (snakes), you start to overcome your fear, then you’re fine with them,” she said. “But I don’t think I can do that.

“I’m OK with just staying away from them.” CV

Top 10 Phobias in 2015


Arachnophobia — the fear of spiders
Ophidiophobia — the fear of snakes
Acrophobia — the fear of heights
Agoraphobia — the fear of open or crowded spaces
Cynophobia — the fear of dogs
Astraphobia — the fear of thunder/lightning
Claustrophobia — the fear of small spaces
Mysophobia — the fear of germs
Aerophobia — the fear of flying
Trypophobia — the fear of holes


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