As a chill enters the air and as everything that can be made pumpkin is made pumpkin, our attention turns to spider webs, jack-o-lanters, and the macabre.  The scary season is upon us and before we know it, we long to walk down fog filled paths with dimly lit candles and dry rustling leaves. We decorate our houses, dress up ourselves, our kids, and our pets, and go out looking for the best-haunted house, corn maze, or scary movie. Even those with little to no taste for the startle of a haunted hayride savor the comforting yet undeniably spooky nostalgia triggered by the changing leaves and smell of spiced cider.

Usually when we’re it IS a bad thing, it’s our bodies well developed threat response system letting us know something is not quite right, and preparing us to run or fight. This sophisticated system triggers a chemical cascade meant to help us survive: adrenaline, endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin among others flood our bodies and brains during (and for a while after) a scary situation.

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But this response shares a lot with other high arousal responses, like when we’re happy, excited, and surprised. The context is what is important when it comes to whether we put a positive or negative spin on the experience. Being scared lost in the woods alone with no help in sight—bad; being scared lost in a haunted house with your friends, with professionals no more than twenty feet away ready to whisk you out of danger—good!   

Not everyone likes being scared though, even in a safe place. For some a racing heart, sweaty palms, and the grueling weight of anticipation is just too much to tolerate, let alone purposefully induce. But for others, and it seems those with particularly efficient dopamine and reward systems, being scared in a safe place is a source of enjoyment and makes them feel good. It can even serve as a confidence boost, reminding us that we can make it through a scary situation, we are strong.

Then of course there is the enjoyment that comes from putting on a mask and pretending to be someone else, or in some cases one’s true self, for a night  (not including those who use it as an opportunity to exploit, oppress, or harm others, that’s just cowardly and awful). So go ahead, eat and drink all the pumpkin things, indulge in the candy and suspend all disblief as you walk into the fog, and recapture the joy of imagination and the pure exhiliaration that comes with a laugh followed by a scream.