Why we're obsessed with Halloween haunted houses, according to a psychologist

·3-min read
A costumed actor walks around the park scaring visitors on the opening night of the Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, in Universal City, Calif., September 9 , 2021. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)
Why do we love haunted houses? A psychologist explains. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Many Halloween fans love that the holiday is an excuse to dress up and eat orange-ified versions of their favorite candy. I’m obsessed with Halloween for a different reason. Every year, I make a list of the best, most frightening haunted house attractions in Southern California and try to hit as many as my calendar allows. I’m kind of a scaredy-cat in most other areas of my life (like, you’re never going to catch me lingering on top of a tall building), yet when it comes to paying people to scare me by wearing clown masks and wielding fake chainsaws, I’m like, yes, please take my money.

While I may be extra enthusiastic about haunted houses, obviously, I’m not alone in my enjoyment. Halloween attractions like Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights attract thousands of thrill seekers each year. The real question is — well, why?

Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College who has written extensively about creepiness and horror, says these experiences provide an ideal emotional cocktail.

“A group of researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark have referred to this type of behavior, i.e., paying good money to go to horror movies or commercial haunted house attractions, as ‘recreational fear,’” he explains to Yahoo Life over email. “They describe recreational fear as a form of play that combines the perfect mix of fear, enjoyment, and surprise, and just the right doses of these emotions appears to be addictive for many people.”

There may also be a human survival element that makes these Halloween attractions so appealing.

“Walking through a commercial haunted house can also provide relevant feedback about ourselves,” he notes. “It might be useful to know which types of things are scary to us and which are not, and examining our emotional reactions to unsettling experiences may help us gauge our level of preparedness for dealing with terrifying unexpected situations. So recreational fear may be a good way of mentally rehearsing strategies for dealing with real-life horror situations like escaping from a serial killer or surviving a shark attack, which in the long run might be quite adaptive for us.”

The reason we get so much enjoyment out of these experiences, however, is that we’re not too scared by what we’re experiencing. McAndrew says, “Our body responds to scare attractions with a jolt of adrenaline and an increased heart rate. It seems as if we experience small, unexpected changes from our baseline level of arousal as pleasurable, but sudden, intense elevations are more likely to result in fear.”

What we want, he explains, is "Goldilocks arousal changes” in that they “are not too small and not too large, but just right."

Basically, you’re scared enough to feel excited — but not too scared to put you go into full-on panic mode. That’s what makes the Halloween attraction experience a heart-pumping, just-this-side-of-spooky thrill — and why I can’t wait to check a few more off my list.

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