Thrills & Chills: The Psychology of Fear

Listen 48:17
Dark ghostly figure in a doorway in abandoned room. Sepia toned, 3D digital illustration

Dark ghostly figure in a doorway in abandoned room. Sepia toned, 3D digital illustration

It’s that time of year when we celebrate something we usually hate: fear. We visit haunted houses and corn mazes or binge-watch the scariest horror movies. But our relationship with fear is complicated. In its most primitive form, fear is about survival — it raises our heart rates, redirects our blood flow, makes us faster and fiercer, all so we can face — or escape — serious threats. In other settings — where there’s no real danger — fear can feel exhilarating, fun, and exciting. It can serve as a form of entertainment, or even help us focus and perform better.

On this episode, we look at fear and how it overlaps with other emotions.  We hear stories about why we love scary movies, overcoming paralyzing stage fright, and what happened to one man who completely lost his sense of fear.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • We talk with science writer Nina Nesseth about why we love scary movies, how playing Tetris can disrupt our experience of fear, and why she’s afraid of actress Toni Collette. Nesseth’s new book is “Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films.”
  • We hear from listeners about the fears that haunt them, from church steeples to suffocating in space.
  • Fear researcher and trauma psychiatrist Arash Javanbakht explains the purpose of our primitive fear circuitry, how it fits into modern life, and why we crave scary experiences. Javanbakht is the director of the Stress Trauma and Anxiety Research Clinic at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, where he studies how people react to threats.
  • British TV presenter Jordy Cernik was always an anxious guy — until around 10 years ago, when he had his adrenal glands removed to treat a rare illness called Cushing’s Syndrome. Liz Tung reports on what happened next, when Cernik came to a startling realization: He’d lost his sense of fear.

Segments from this episode

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