Neuropsychiatrist Katherine Brownlowe explained to the LA Times what fear is, how it affects us, and why we crave more. It turns out that it's the old nature-nurture balance that determines who can handle the most fear (and what their individual triggers are:
"Some people’s brains are just set up so they don’t find the experience of being scared to be negative or they need more heavy stimulus to generate a fear response.
There is also an additional overlay of personal experience — things you’ve learned from your family while growing up. Also, someone who has been traumatized is less likely to enjoy things that are fearful."
The idea of a killer specifically targeting victims based on what they fear the most has been covered in a number of movies, such as the marvelous early '90s #Fear and the rather more schlocky FearDotCom (2002).
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If we boil fear down to its physical stimuli alone, the feeling stems from the amygdala and the frontal lobes:
"One is in the amygdala, which is in the temporal lobe right under the temples on the side of your face. It’s a structure both animals and humans have. It’s the part that activates when you are walking along and see a spider or a snake — that initial WHAA! that gives you the cascade of brain alertness, heart rate increase and goosebumps.
At the same time, in humans, there is a function of fear and anxiety that is mediated by the frontal lobes. This is the part of the brain that gives us consciousness. This system can increase a fear response when you are in a situation that could be dangerous, like walking down a dark alley and hearing someone behind you. It can also turn down a fear response if the brain knows it is in a situation that is safe, like a haunted house."
Horror fans, rejoice, for being scared is actually pretty good for you (provided that you don't fall into any genuine harm afterwards!)
"Often when people are done being scared, their bodies are more relaxed. We have hormones and neurotransmitters that turn the volume up when we’re frightened, but once a person is no longer in a scary situation, there is a counter-balance system that calms things down. The muscles relax. The heart rates go down. The brain relaxes... Emotionally and cognitively, there is a heightened attention level, colors are brighter and things are a little more clear and in focus."