Prof explains the science behind 'a good scare'

October 21, 2010

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Enjoying a good scare may seem like fun at the time, but the aftereffects can be frightening, says a Purdue University expert.

"Most people who say they enjoy a good scare don't realize that it isn't the fear they enjoy," said Glenn Sparks, professor of communication. "Instead, some enjoy the relief that they made it through or the feeling that they have conquered the experience. This feeling of mastery is especially common with adolescent males. Being scared is also an adrenaline rush that some people report as a positive experience."

There are frequently some frightening aftereffects to being scared, says Sparks who has surveyed hundreds of people on this topic over many years.

"Almost any adult can remember back to a scary movie or television show that caused so much fear that the emotional upset lingered for a few days, weeks or months," he says. "Some may even still be haunted years later and express regret that they ever viewed the film. That is not healthy."

These feelings also can upset people's daily routines by disrupting their sleep or making them afraid of a room in their house or a specific situation that resembles something seen in a scary movie.

"Technology and pop culture trends today also make it easier to scare people in more realistic ways," Sparks says. "For example, two recently popular movies, "Paranormal Activity" and "The Blair Witch Project," were made in a documentary style. Parents especially need to be aware of how today's technology and special effects, including those in video games, can scare children of all ages."

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.

Sparks also says fear at all ages should be taken seriously, and it is acceptable for people to avoid being scared.

"About one-third of the population actively seeks a good scare, another third avoids it and the remainder says it depends," Sparks says. "There is nothing wrong with avoiding something that will scare you. It is important that people have a sense of what triggers their fears, and if it's a concern, avoid it."

Writer:  Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Source:  Glenn Sparks, 765-464-9536,