Boy wearing face paint and skeleton costume next to pumpkin lantern during Halloween (AP / CBS)
Joseph LeDoux is a respected neuroscientist who has authored books and articles in a number of journals about the brain mechanics of fear. "There is a good deal of overlap in the pattern of responses in our brain and body in a pleasurable situation and in a fearful situation," he observes.
Is that why our bodies react to a scary movie the same way they react when we have love at first sight — feelings of our breath being taken away, our heart speeding up?
"Exactly," LeDoux says, "because the body just doesn't have that many ways to respond. It can speed up the heart. It can release hormones. And those are going to occur in both situations."
It's the old pleasure-pain paradox, Smith points out. She says it could help explain why the scare industry is such a money-maker.
Take last weekend: "The Grudge," a horror movie that got mostly negative reviews, grossed $40 milliion and opened at Number One at the box office.
And that's not so unusual. "Friday the 13th," although critically panned, debuted at Number One and went on to become a cult classic.
"Sometimes our lives are a little boring," says Columbia University Director of Film Studies Annette Insdorf. "And, as Hitchcock said, sometimes they numb us. So he wanted to give back that sense of (noise). Don't be numb, because if you don't stay on your toes, you are not fully alive."
It's all based on the idea that we can do these things at a safe distance while still experiencing the thrill, Smith says.
When the end of October rolls around each year, everyday pranks are considered particularly good fun.
On Halloween, it's easier than ever to get a good scare. You can find haunted houses all over the country. In them, even the mundane can seem menacing, Smith says.
Insdorf adds, "Most scary movies play on childhood fears. And Hitchcock was really good at that."
In his film "Psycho," Hitchcock explores childhood fears such as the death of parent and being alone. In "The Birds," the fear of something harmless turning deadly, is played out. "We lose our own sense of balance. Our own sense of who we can trust," Insdorf says.
But LeDoux says as long as it's over quickly, getting scared can actually be helpful: "Stress is good for you in the short run. ...The system was designed for dealing with things that happen over a very short time scale. An attack with a beast is not going to last very long. Either you're going to be eaten or you're going to get away. And then it's over."
But if the beast doesn't get you, can the experience still scare you to death? It's called the Baskerville effect, as in Charles Baskerville, who died of shock in the Sherlock Holmes story, "Hound of the Baskervilles."
The authors of a 2001 study of that effect concluded you can be scared stiff, but it's rare, Smith reports. And in a controlled environment, like a movie theater, it's practically unheard of.
So if you want to set yourself up going to scary movies every day, are you going to be perfectly fine? "Absolutely," LeDoux reassures Smith.
Is there also something in that release when you go see a scary movie that is good for you in handling your stress in real life?
Indeed, says LeDoux: "When the brain is in a stressful tense state, it needs to have down time. And the release after a scary movie can bring the brain down.
Think of it this way, suggests Smith: A run-in with Freddy Kruger makes that credit card balance seem -- well -- a lot more manageable.
"If you're brave watching the movies, does it mean you'll be brave in real life?" Smith asked LeDoux.
"The same parts of your brain will be involved in both situations," he responded. "It's just that in real life, you'll probably have to involve many other parts that interpret and explain and help you cope that won't be engaged in a movie-watching situation."
And if you're not quite so brave on Halloween, or any other day of the year, LeDoux says you can change your stripes, if you want to: "One of the most important things to know about the human brain is its remarkable ability to change. Anyone can become less afraid than they are now."
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