October 17, 2017

Halloween can really scare you - and fear is a negative emotion

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — While conjuring up fear or a good scare is part of Halloween, a  Purdue University expert cautions people to remember why humans feel and experience fear.

“Halloween is an entire holiday built around fear, and we don’t want to forget that fear is a negative emotional experience,” says Glenn Sparks, a professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication. “The commercial industries can market fear and make money; lots of money. But fear is an emotion that occurs when we look around at our situation and conclude that our well-being is threatened. It is a negative emotion when one is under threat and that is not a pleasant feeling.”

This can really affect children’s sense of well-being, which can lead to health issues such as sleep disturbances and high anxiety.

“Parents don’t often appreciate what emotions children experience when they encounter a grotesque or scary image, whether it be a realistic display in the neighborhood or a glimpse of something on TV,” Sparks says. “Parents should pay close attention to their children and realize that older children can be as easily bothered as younger children. But in our culture, young boys in particular are often encouraged to engage in frightening situations in an attempt to conquer the source of the fright.

“This can serve to motivate boys to seek out scary things so they can experience the gratifying feeling of conquering a fear. But the feeling of fear can still have unpleasant side effects that linger on and cause problems after the initial frightening experience.”

Parents should watch for changes in their children's behavior or sleep schedules because children typically lack the sophisticated emotional coping skills that are required to deal with some of the gruesome images that are readily available this time of year, he says.

“The more realistic the images, the greater the intensity of the fear likely to be experienced. The closer to reality, the stronger the emotional reaction,” Sparks says. “Thanks to special effects and technology, the entertainment industry can more easily create something that seems closer to reality, which makes it harder for the brain to write it off as fake, and avoid feelings of intense fear.”

Sparks also says fear at all ages should be taken seriously. While some people deliberately seek out frightening experiences and say they are fun, many people systematically avoid situations that cause them to be afraid and appropriately seek to protect their children from things that will cause them to experience intense emotional upset.   

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Glenn Sparks, gsparks@purdue.edu 

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