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From horror movies to theme park monsters, this time of year brings images of terror that many of us absolutely adore. Why? And what draws some of us to scary experiences while others try to avoid it at all costs? The answer: Your brain.

For years, researchers have examined the differences between sensation-seekers who actually enjoy the feeling of fear vs. those who don’t. In fact, brain imaging studies suggest that those who seek novel experiences have a larger hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with memory.

For all of us, there are multiple pathways that bring information about fear into the brain. The amygdala, for example, is an almond-shaped group of nerve cells that release neurotransmitters signaling the brain’s “fight or flight” response. The resulting “adrenalin rush” raises the heart rate and blood pressure, providing a boost of energy and alertness. When the danger is real, this sensation can be the key to our survival. Research shows that’s also what makes scary situations like horror movies and haunted houses so much fun for sensation-seekers. They enjoy the heightened feeling that fear creates.

That theory aligns with psychologists’ belief that many people long to experience sensations that differ from those felt in their daily lives. There’s often an interest in the “dark side” and a need to make sense of it, hence the popularity of frightening movies.

It is believed that males, particularly adolescent boys, flock to horror movies because they provide new experiences and the feeling that the viewer has mastered and overcome a threat. Young males also see scary experiences as a rite of passage, exposing themselves to situations that were once off limits. For those who avoid unnecessary fear at all cost, horror movies can cause unhealthy levels of anxiety. In fact, when The Exorcist movie was released in the 1970s, several adults experienced such high levels of anxiety that they had to be hospitalized.

When it comes to Halloween, a low level of fear in the form of goblins, witches and make-believe can provide children with a way to work through and release pent up emotions and anxieties. But parents remain the best judges when deciding how much fear is too much. Here are a few general guidelines to consider:

  • Toddlers often have a difficult time distinguishing reality from fantasy, so it’s safest to keep Halloween activities fun and light-hearted at this stage.
  • Many grade school kids are starting to venture into scarier ways of observing Halloween, but that doesn’t mean that your child is ready. As long as you have doubts about whether your child can handle the potential scares, find family-fun alternatives that you can supervise.
  • For middle school children, it’s all about belonging to a group and going along with what friends want to do, despite their personal fears. Parents should speak with their children privately to determine their true wishes. If they’re feeling too much peer pressure about playing along, you can step in and provide them with an excuse about why they cannot participate. Helping your child avoid embarrassment is especially important in this situation.
  • While older teens typically make independent decisions about Halloween fun, parental involvement is still important. As with other types of unsupervised activities, be sure to set safe guidelines, clear behavioral expectations and strict curfews.
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