During my recent trip to Wisconsin to visit my son and his family, we celebrated my grandson Calvin’s seventh birthday.  One of the things we did for his birthday was take him and his little brother Theo to Little Amerrika, a small amusement park near Madison.  James read the list of attractions to Calvin before we went, and Calvin compiled a list of things he wanted to do.  First on his list was to go to the haunted house.  He knew that haunted houses were scary, but was sure he could handle it.

Right after arriving, he and I found the haunted house and went inside.  It was a fairly conventional haunted house: we walked through a labyrinth of passageways, mostly in the dark, and every so often a skeleton or ghost would pop up or otherwise manifest itself, usually accompanied by a buzzer, bell, or some other loud noise.  Holding my hand, Calvin entered confidently, faltered at the first buzzer, and was very frightened by the time we got midway.  His grip on my hand tightened and he was desperate to get out, but, at that point, there was nothing we could do except hurry through the house until we finally exited. 

Why is it that we humans deliberately seek to be frightened?  Amusement parks cater to our fascination with fear not only via haunted houses but also with scary rides.  Horror movies remain popular.  Activities like skydiving and extreme sports have the potential for fear as part of their appeal.  I don’t think there is any other species that seeks fear-producing experiences so often and in so many ways. 

Perhaps we are preparing ourselves to deal with future dangers, but, in that case, why wouldn’t other species seek frightening experiences as much as we do?  It seemed that Calvin was interested in showing he could handle the haunted house without being afraid, and that sort of thinking may characterize many of us—we may seek frightening experiences not to become afraid but to demonstrate that we aren’t afraid.  A related possibility is that seeking scary experiences is a way of denying our mortality.  Ernst Becker, in Denial of Death, asserted that the discomfort we humans experience from knowing we will eventually die produces a variety of defenses against that prospect; one such defense certainly could be seeking frightening experiences, and, by surviving those experiences, symbolically defeating death.

Of course, we aren’t all equally likely to seek out scary things.  The audience for horror films is predominantly young and male, and that’s also the demographic that does the most risk-taking.  Personality also has something to do with one’s appetite for being scared.   Psychologist Frank Farley has proposed that there is a Type-T personality, where the “T” stands for thrill-seeking.  Type-Ts are supposedly adventuresome, risk-taking, and creative.  USA Today has published a test of Type-T, albeit one that is apparently not validated or normed; it can be taken  here.  

Calvin was crying by the time we got out of the haunted house.  Once he regained his composure, he started talking about it, and did so for the rest of the day.  After a few minutes, he denied he was afraid, then decided he was afraid, but not very much.  He asked whether I was afraid, and what scared me the most (I was only afraid that my grandson was being traumatized, but I didn’t tell him that).  He wanted to know how the mechanical elements of the house worked, why the various elements were included, how this house compared to other haunted houses, when had I first gone to a haunted house, and how had I reacted then.  He said he wanted to build a haunted house in his basement.  Back home that evening, while I was playing with Theo, Calvin came in Theo’s room and said he wanted to make a haunted house with Theo’s Duplo blocks.  He worked on the house for at least half an hour, making it open on the top so he could see the maze within.  Satisfied with his efforts, he explained to me and his mom what someone would encounter going through the house, using the phrase “freaked out” quite liberally in his description.  Then he was done.  He only mentioned haunted houses one more time, in passing, the next day.  He had done a beautiful job of working through his fear.  I hope I do as well the next time I’m afraid.     

Calvin and his haunted house.