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Be Afraid, Very Afraid!

October 31, 2019

Sure, there are people who can’t even hear the words “Sea Serpent” without collapsing into a fetal position on the boardwalk while crying softly into their Curley’s Fries. But, for most of us, a little bit of fear is fun.

We ride roller coasters. We climb aboard the Ghost Ship. And some of us even feed the seagulls. (Hey, that can be scary! Haven't you ever seen “The Birds?”) 

So, this all begs the question: What’s wrong with us? Why do human beings willingly subject ourselves to terror?

“When you’re on a roller coaster or in a haunted house, you’re not thinking about your bills, your classes, your relationships or your future,” said fear expert Margee Kerr, PhD. “Our thoughts can just take a break, and we can enjoy being fully in our bodies, feeling primal and animal.” 

When our caveman ancestors came upon a threat – say, a saber-toothed tiger – they had two options: run, or battle it out. And the body instinctively prepared to do either. Heart rate and breathing increased to provide more energy. Pupils dilated to allow for better vision. And adrenaline started pumping, offering a boost of strength. In other words, primitive peeps became their most superhero selves.

While saber-toothed tigers aren’t causing too much panic nowadays (at least not in Wildwood), this fight-or-flight response remains the same. When faced with a threat, we enter superhero mode.

If this threat is truly dangerous, well, that stinks. But, if this threat is only mimicking real danger – as with a haunted house or roller coaster – all those superhero changes to the body can actually feel like a natural high. Added energy and a boost of strength? Yes, please!

This feeling of pleasure derived from a negative emotion is called benign masochism. And it explains why some people welcome the burn of whisky, enjoy crying at sad movies or get jazzed from jogging endless miles on the boardwalk. As counterintuitive as it sounds, feeling bad translates to feeling glad.  

But experiencing a little bit of amusement-park induced fear doesn’t just feel good… it also does a body good.

For one thing, a little bit of fear can help you shed pounds. Researchers at the University of Westminster found that watching “The Shining” burns 184 calories, while viewing “Jaws” torches 164 (aka, a portion of last summer’s Curley’s Fry splurge). Imagine how many calories you’ll burn next season after a spin on the Great White.

Other studies show that exposing oneself to a controlled-fear environment (i.e., a theme park) can help boost immunity. In some cases, it can even help you fall in love. That’s because part of the body’s fear response is to release a brain chemical called “Phenyl ethyl-amine.” That’s the one responsible for euphoria and other warm-and-fuzzy feelings lovelorn humans are likely to associate with their roller coaster-riding partners. 

“In other words,” says Vanessa LoBue, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University, “the physiology behind fear and something like excitement might be really similar. It’s just how we think about them that makes them different.”

But if you’re still not convinced fear is your friend? You’re free to forego coasters next summer in favor of another helping of Curley’s Fries. 

They are, after all, scary good.