This is one of my favorite times of the year. The chill in the air is much appreciated by someone who works all summer long. The wonders of nature from apple picking to foliage to increased visibility of the stars on a crisp night. And of course, one of my absolute favorite days of the year, All Hallow's Eve. I've had the privilege of meeting so many people from different cultures who have taught and shared with me their celebrations from Día de Los Muertos to La Toussaint to Samhain and everything in between.
But it is my own experience with Halloween that I love the most. Getting to dress up in costume, sharing scary stories around a campfire, hiding under the blankets as monsters leap off the TV screen, hunting for ghosts, and playing pranks on my friends. In many ways, it is everything I love about our summer camp just minus mosquitoes and heat (bonus!). But for those who like monster movies, scary stories, and haunted houses, why do we want to give ourselves a fright? Well, I'd like to argue that fear can actually make us happier and healthier.
Now before I get too far into how fear is helpful for children and adults, it's important to remember the difference between persistent fear and threats versus jump scares and consensual fear experiences. For children (or anyone) to benefit from a fearful experience, they need a safe and supportive environment to step out from and back into. The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child rightly points out that "exposure to circumstances that produce persistent fear and chronic anxiety can have lifelong consequences by disrupting the developing architecture of the brain."* At camp, we go through painstaking steps to ensure that our plots, encounters, and experiences are designed to allow our heroes the choice to experience fear and anxiety guided by trained professionals and educators. No child should ever be forced into any experience, and for fear and fright to have any benefit, there should be consent, guidance, and reflection. We take the safety of our campers very seriously. We allow our heroes to scare themselves by suspending their beliefs and engaging in an immersive but controlled experience.
So, what are the benefits of scaring yourself the right way? Turns out there are both short-term and long-term benefits to being frightened. In the short term, you can gain more energy, quicker emotional regulation, and even become more relaxed all thanks to someone in a werewolf costume jumping out and saying "boo!" Cardiologist Dr. Nidhi Kumar points out that "when you are scared for a short period of time, your body releases endorphins. Your body releases dopamine. Your heart rate speeds up. Oxygen and blood flow to your muscles and you get pumped up and you actually feel energized." Apparently, short scares even help boost the immune system the same way that exercise can as Dr. Kumar continues to explain,
"When your body gets that surge of stress, you release antioxidants and those fight cellular damage, so it can be incredibly healthy."**
These controlled frights (at camp or in a haunted house) make us sharper, more focused, and even more connected as being scared also releases oxytocin which can make you feel more connected to those around you. And those are just the short-term benefits.
The longer-term benefits of immersive and imaginative fear include building confidence and tricking (or treating) our brains to help us understand ourselves. Spooks, scares, frights, and superstitions are all about practicing to face our fears. The more we embrace situations that make us afraid the braver we become. The more we explore the supernatural in our mind the better we know the natural world.
Assessing a fearful situation is equal parts logical sensing and imaginative wondering. You look at a potentially haunted house; what do you notice? You see the door hanging off its hinges, you hear the wood creaking, you feel the wind blowing through the open window, you smell the scent of rust and decay, and you can even taste a bit of dust in the air. Those are your logical senses giving you information. But then...then, there is your hair standing on end, the goosebumps on your skin, and that tingling sense of danger in your head that seems disconnected from the chill of the night. Your brain starts looking at the shadows and wondering if they are moving, you wonder if the howling is the wind or something else, and was that smell of rotten wood and decaying fabric or the scent of an ancient mummy stalking the home. You use all this information -- real and imagined -- to make a decision. The more you practice scaring yourself, the more experienced you become at risk assessment. By being afraid, you can actually become more self-assured and confident.
At camp, our counselors teach that courage is not the absence of fear, but your willingness to confront it. We use the controlled environment and supportive community of our LARP camp to give our campers a positive way to experience fear and to learn from it. We can talk them through their anxiety before stepping into a dark and mysterious cavern. We can give them space and a break to decompress if it becomes overwhelming. And we can celebrate their success after the encounter whether it was a success of identifying their fear or moving past it. Through this process our heroes can become more confident and are better trained when they experience a fearful moment outside of camp. When you combine this learning moment with the immediate euphoria of experiencing fear in a safe environment, it locks into your mind stronger and deeper because of how immersed you were.
Socialist Margee Kerr adds that "when we know that we're safe—when we know that we can leave a haunted house or turn off a movie, when there's that understanding that you are actually maintaining agency, it has a huge impact on how we manage stress—namely, we manage much better".*** You can learn even more about the science of fear and Margee Kerr here: Scary Good.
This same concept of understanding and embracing fear is not just for kids and those who love Halloween. You can even find it in the world of business. Wall Street Journal best-selling author Patrick Sweeney II has built an entire brand around the concept of "Fear as Fuel" which inspires entrepreneurs to take risks and CEOs to embrace change. You can pick up any self-help book and find some quote around how we need to conquer our fears, not to let being scared stop you, or any other iteration. But what they don't often point to is how to practice being afraid. And what better practice than Halloween?
Fear is good. Fear informs, teaches, and protects us. And, in the right environment, fear can help us become better versions of ourselves. There's nothing wrong with being afraid as long as you learn from it. So go out with friends to a haunted house, watch that scary movie, and share a spooky tale or two. As they say in my favorite horror movie, "It's Halloween, everyone's entitled to a good scare."
Happy Halloween from my spooky family to yours!
* Persistent Fear and Anxiety Can Affect Young Childrens' Learning and Development https://developingchild.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Persistent-Fear-and-Anxiety-Can-Affect-Young-Childrens-Learning-and-Development.pdf
**A Good Scare Can Come With Health Benefits
***Why It's Okay To Feel Frightened