Finding our fears: Why people seek to be scared and what they’re really afraid of

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Greg Reinke is in the business of scary, but he doesn’t always want to make you afraid.

Clad in a black leather jacket on Oct. 11 at his Littleton costume shop, Reinke Bros., he divulged his secrets for being scary without scaring people away.

“We use our minds,” Reinke said.

Scary is feeling your heart stop at the unexpected clash of plates shattering on the floor, the skin-crawling sensation of being followed or the panicked feeling of losing your balance in a dark hallway. Each year, Reinke sets out to find new ways of prodding that part in a person’s brain — finding what scares people.

“If you make an experience where people come through and have a great time, listen to them as they come out,” Reinke said. “I’m here to entertain you.”

Reinke draws a line at displaying overwhelming images of blood and guts because, to him, that’s not scary. It’s just disturbing. He toes this line occasionally, but even the edible, fake human limbs sitting in a deli refrigerator provokes smacking lips as much as a shivering spine.

Reinke wants to show people the fun side of scary. For small children, he’ll turn all the lights on in his haunted house tour, allow them to touch the walls and see that everything is fake.

“Therefore, they know the difference between reality and fantasy,” Reinke said. “(We) teach them that being scared can be fun.”

Every person has a different tolerance for scary, but the core themes of what scares us is relatively unanimous: Failure, the unknown, death. You know when you’re scared when your heart races, your breath shortens and the hair stands up on your neck. And we seek out this feeling, whether it be from a horror film, a roller coaster ride or bungee jumping.

Lauren DeCarvalho, Ph.D., teaches a freshman-level course on horror movies at the University of Denver. DeCarvalho said what scares people can often be attributed to real-life anxieties people feel, like losing cell phone service or being stalked. These are newer feelings, specifically in American culture, that trigger that sense of fear. Gone are the days of werewolves and vampires scaring us, here are the days of “real-life” horrors.

“(Scary) tends to fit with a lot of cognitive interests,” DeCarvalho said. “You can kind of think of it as watching a train wreck. You’re kind of repulsed, but you want to keep watching.”

How we find our scares boils down to what actually scares us, DeCarvalho said. “Paranormal Activity,” released in 2008, commented on the Great Recession. Classic 1950s alien and sci-fi movies metaphorized the Red Scare, while ghosts often symbolize the unknown or death, DeCarvalho said.

“It’s constantly changing and keeping up with the times,” DeCarvalho said.

Most people ceremoniously celebrate these fears around Halloween and those who are particularly festive go out of their way to incite the feeling. Some are scared more easily than others.

A skeleton may be an unsettling symbol of death, but a person skipping around in a smiling skeleton jumpsuit doesn’t make us feel afraid. Embracing something that scares us automatically reduces the scary value of it and gives us a glimpse into our greatest fears and how we would react in the face of danger. At Halloween, we laugh and giggle, collect candy and bob for apples in the face of everything that scares us so it no longer does.

“We all need that outlet and some way to get that extra little kick you wouldn’t be able to get otherwise,” said Bryan Bonner, co-founder of Rocky Mountain Paranormal.

Bonner said the feeling can be addictive, but, “just like a drug,” he said, “it takes differently” for different people.

“The spooky side of (scary) is the safe side of it, but the initial reaction is the same thing,” Bonner said. “That initial reaction is nearly identical, which is why I think people are addicted to that.”

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