SPECIAL REPORT: Science of Fear
Over the past month, thousands of people across the Corridor have lined up at haunted attractions to get their fill of scares, jumps, and screams.
Dr. Daniel Tranel is a neuropsychologist who has spent nearly 40 years at the University of Iowa researching human emotion.
"There’s a part to fear that activates reward pathways in the brain and makes it rewarding to put yourself in a fearful situation," said Tranel. "They do that on purpose. They pay money to do that!"
He’s talking about the thousands who flock to haunted houses like Scream Acres each year.
Karen Petersen, the owner of Bloomsbury Farm and Scream Acres Park, says the reactions are wide-ranging.
"We’ve seen adults cry, panic attacks, we’ve had people wet their pants yes," said Petersen. "We’ve had a few other accidents too on the farm. Everyone kind of jokes that we should sell Depends in the gift shop."
And just like people’s reactions to fear are individual, so is the fear itself.
A question I asked on Facebook yielded many different fears, ranging from fear of oceans, to bad breath, to busy nights at an understaffed restaurant.
Dr. Tranel says the recipe for a person's personal fear is “a combination of their biology and their experiences." He says biologically, some fears are ingrained.
"There are basic things that almost all people are afraid of -- you’re sort of “hard-wired” to be afraid of," said Tranel. "Snakes are a good example, and spiders."
A 2018 study by ADT Home Security said Iowans fear spiders the most.I bought a tarantula and took it to a science classroom at Center Point-Urbana High School. When exposed to the spider, some students panicked and cried, even though the animal was securely locked in a cage."People sort of start with a base state of fear and that’s adaptive, because those things can be poisonous and kind of kill you if you get bitten by them," said Tranel.
Other fears aren’t so hard-wired for protection. Some are based on a personal belief, like the fear of God, or fear of ghosts.
Amanda Enos is a paranormal investigator. Despite going on missions to speak with spirits, she says they frighten her.
"Those spirits are gonna harm you, they’re gonna scratch you, they’re gonna possess you," said Enos. "They’re gonna do whatever they want to make you leave. That genuinely makes me terrified."Amanda says the difference between a skeptic and a believer like herself, is she has "experienced it." Amanda says that when investigating at Monticello’s Edinburgh Manor in 2017, spirits overcame her causing her to forget 20 minutes of her evening. She said friends told her she was shouting, yelling and not acting like herself.Amanda says she doesn't believe that she was possessed, but she was "jumped" a little bit.
Tranel said neuroscience doesn’t completely have the answer to why some people may believe in the paranormal as opposed to others.
"Some people’s experiences build into a place where they’re on board with those things or on board enough to worry about them or be fearful of them or think that there’s something going on," said Tranel.
So from spiders, to spirits, to spooks in haunted houses, fear is everywhere.
But what if you have no fear?
Dr. Tranel spent years studying a woman who fit that exact description: she was essentially fearless.
The "fear" part of her brain, the amygdala, was calcified.
"We probably published 25 or 30 studies about that patient," said Tranel.
Tranel’s team exposed her to snakes and spiders. They even flew her to what was supposed to be the most scary haunted house in the US.
"Just her complete lack of fear response in situations that would trigger massive fear in most people was very fascinating," said Tranel.
It’s something we can only dream of: having no fear. Wouldn’t we all want to be fearless? Science says no.
"I remember when somebody asked me. Maybe you should have an army of soldiers who could have their amygdalae taken out so they could not have fear. And they would be better in battles or so forth," said Tranel. "And in a way, that makes sense. But in a way, those people would end up putting themselves in harm’s way. I mean, they need to be afraid."
So as much as fear scares us, we need it.
"It’s a basic survival emotion," said Tranel. "It keeps us alive."