We were not wired for scary things : Adventures in the spooky science of thrills, chills and Halloween fear

Thrills mess with well-designed internal systems, violating our expectations and thumbing their nose at evolution

Published October 29, 2015 9:09PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
(Reuters/Rick Wilking)

Adapted from "SCREAM: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear"

Walking through the gates at Fuji-Q, I instantly felt my heart rate increase. I heard the telltale click-click-click as the coasters climbed the track, the screams growing louder and then fading as riders twisted and turned through loops and inversions, and finally the ground-shaking thunder as they sped around through the web of rails.

I immediately ran to the Takabisha and got in line. Usually waiting in line is filled with growing anticipation, and all around me I watched as friends and couples jumped up and down with excitement, struggling to control their nerves as they talked and laughed. Amusement parks are made for friends and family, and they prove the truth of the saying “A happiness shared is a happiness doubled.” Indeed, research from Arthur Aron and colleagues found that participants reported an increase in relationship quality after participating in something novel and exciting together. Recent research by Garriy Shteynberg at the University of Tennessee found through a series of social experiments that “simultaneous co-attention,” or participating in something with others, leads to a more intense emotional experience. He and his colleagues showed that scary advertisements felt scarier, negative images made people feel sadder, and happy images made people feel happier when people knew they weren’t experiencing them alone.

We enjoy experiences with others not only because of our own emotional responses, but because when we watch someone experience something, we experience it ourselves—it’s how we empathize and connect to each other. Kyung Hwa Lee and Greg Siegle from the University of Pittsburgh conducted a meta-analysis of existing studies that used neuroimaging to measure emotional evaluation of the self and others. They found similar or overlapping patterns of brain activity when we experience an emotion and when we evaluate others’ emotions. For example, the part of our insular cortex (a brain structure located in the left and right hemispheres inside the cerebral cortex—more on that later) that processes pain is active when we experience pain ourselves and when we are simply observing something that causes pain, as in “I could feel my teeth hurt watching that dentist drill into her tooth!” This could be why you scream when your friend is startled and why you cry when you see your loved one cry. Of course seeing someone else do something, or even imagining doing something ourselves, is not exactly the same as experiencing it directly (as I would repeatedly learn). For example, we mostly only experience the affective part of the physical pain of others; we really don’t have the same intense physical sensations in our body. This means that you’ll suffer along with the character on screen trying to cut off his foot, but won’t be screaming in agony as though your foot really was being sawed from your leg (but it might ache a little).

The mechanisms behind this process of creating overlapping layers of representation is still debated, but researchers like neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran and Lindsay Oberman believe it is likely a result of mirror neurons, or what Ramachandran calls the discovery responsible for the great leap forward in human civilization. The mirror neuron was discovered by an Italian research team in the premotor cortex of macaques in 1992. They noticed that this new class of neurons was active not only when the monkey was carrying out a task but when it watched another monkey do the same thing. The media interpreted this as the discovery of the neurological basis of empathy, birthing a tornado of headlines claiming everything from the discovery of God in the brain to the human soul. But as cognitive neuroscientist and science writer Christian Jarrett pointed out in his critical article, “A Calm Look at the Most Hyped Concept in Neuroscience—Mirror Neurons,” the hype was largely just that: a chance to grab attention and headlines. Researchers James Kilner and Roger Lemon, through their careful review of research on the topic, show that there are more questions than answers about mirror neurons. They do work in the motor cortex and likely play a role in our ability to mimic expressions and gestures, but they are not the “soul” source of human empathy (pun intended).


Watching the faces light up around me, I found myself wishing I had someone to share this experience with. Just the night before, on the train to Mount Fuji, I had thought about how amazing it was to be so far away from everything and everyone. No one knew where I was; no one could reach me; no one expected anything from me. I felt free from all responsibilities, as if I had been given a hall pass in life. But as I stood in line, those same thoughts took on new meaning, and instead of smiling like those around me, I felt a wave of sadness. I was alone. All of a sudden I felt heavy and tired. I wanted to go sit in my room and stare at the wall.

As my turn approached, the ride attendant walked over, held up one finger, and asked, “One?” Embarrassed at forcing the couples around me to separate, I nodded my head. Sharing a car with three strangers, I felt self-conscious and burdensome—not your typical emotional state before a roller coaster ride. I should have been sweating bullets and feeling anxious and exhilarated, as I had while riding coasters all day with my friends at Cedar Point. I tried to shake it off. Finally, after instructions in Japanese, English, and a few other languages, the car took off—accelerating to sixty-two miles per hour in only two seconds—and then dropped into total darkness. Instantly my whole body came alive, and before I knew it, I was screaming.


Humans have sophisticated systems of prediction, and when our predictions don’t match our experience, it raises a red flag and puts us in a state of uncertainty. Perhaps the most important are the systems that tell us what to expect from changes in gravitational force: namely, our vestibular system and our proprioception (or our awareness of our body in the space around us). Our brain brings together information from these systems to help us determine things like balance, acceleration, and direction. An incorrect prediction is profoundly disorienting at a visceral level—as when we mistakenly think there is one stair left going into the basement.

Thrill rides mess with these well-designed internal systems, violating our expectations and thumbing their nose at the work of evolution. They take us to speeds we could never run, launch us in the air as though we could fly, take us around turns faster than we could ever survive on our own, and basically confuse the hell out of our bodies. There are very, very few ways we can achieve these sensations naturally—or without some sort of mechanical manipulation. Prior to the innovative and creative thrill rides of the twentieth century, the only ways to feel the sensations caused by acceleration and direction manipulation were accidental, to say the least: being swung back and forth in the mouth of a lion, for instance, or falling down a steep hill, neither of which bodes especially well for our survival. Yet today we’ve built machines that allow us to experience physical sensations our ancestors couldn’t even imagine, just to see what it feels like. The outcome—it can feel great, but it can also leave you begging for the comfort of your safe, warm bed or, worse, dead.

Thanks in part to the research of a former US Air Force officer named John Stapp, we know that the body’s ability to tolerate changes in g-force (which is essentially the measure of gravity acting on your body: 1 g being normal, 3 g being the force you’d feel if you were three times as heavy) depends on time, direction, and rate of acceleration. You may be able to take a 100 g punch to the gut that’s over in a second, but the longer the duration, the smaller the g-force we can tolerate. Most people start to get uncomfortable past 5 g, which is when some of the real danger kicks in. During rapid changes in acceleration and direction, our blood pressure is significantly affected, which can cause everything from lightheadedness to a “gray-out,” where we lose some visual acuity, to blacking out and losing consciousness completely, or even dying. Over the course of Stapp’s experimental rides (he took several extreme ones in the name of science, peaking at 46 g), he experienced broken bones, a detached retina, burst blood vessels, and permanently impaired vision.

Human beings were simply not designed for these unnatural experiences, which is why our body essentially freaks out. Moreover, everyone has different levels of tolerance. For some a Ferris wheel is enough to cause nausea, while others leave the 6.3 g Tower of Terror begging for more. The key for designers is to hit that sweet spot between 4 and 6 g with just the right path, height, speed, and time to trigger the sensations without giving us whiplash, making us sick, or putting us in real danger.


These are the sensations that people talk about the most when they discuss thrill rides: the “dizzy feeling,” the “airtime” or “weightlessness,” and the “stomach drop.” The rides best known for the “dizzy feeling” are the antigravity spinners that confuse our bodies by upsetting our semicircular canal system (part of the vestibular system, it is the intricate and sensitive labyrinth of canals that comprise our inner ear), which is responsible for reporting on our rotational movement. And of course our visual cues are completely disrupted (it’s hard to focus when you’re spinning). A lot of people really love the dizzy feeling—especially kids who are just beginning to understand how their bodies work. For them it’s novel at this time of self-discovery. Who doesn’t remember spinning as a child until collapsing on the grass, giggling as the sky spun above you? As we age, however, so does our vestibular system, making it harder to find our balance and thus making that dizzy feeling not so much fun anymore. The loss of control and disorientation can also be hard to tolerate in adulthood. You have to choose to relax and embrace the dizziness, and then maybe you can recapture some of that childhood delight.

I don’t hate spinning rides, but the residual feeling of dizziness leaves me feeling unsteady and drunk for a half hour afterwards—it’s sometimes just impractical. Turns out that I and those who have poor postural control or balance are more sensitive to dizziness—as I would be reminded more than once during my adventures. I felt this intensely after riding the Eejanaika, which has over fourteen inversions and rotating seats—after that I wasn’t sure which way was up for a good five minutes.

Next, there is my favorite thrill ride sensation: the feeling of weightlessness. This happens in those brief but treasured seconds when a ride tips over the apex of a steep hill or begins its decent back down to the ground. In that second we feel weightless—though we’re not, of course, since zero g-force is different from zero gravity. On Earth gravity is constant, so it’s only through manipulating downward acceleration that we can approximate the feeling of zero gravity. Thrill rides give us a few seconds at best. The Zero G: Weightless Experience Flight gives you a total of 7.5 minutes (in 30-second intervals) for “just” five thousand dollars.

Right before and after the far too fleeting feeling of weightlessness, we experience what everyone calls the “stomach drop” sensation. This is not really a metaphor—it’s the literal feeling of gravity acting on your stomach, which sits loosely inside your body. When you are accelerating toward the ground faster than 1 g—for example, when you are dropped 415 feet at 90 miles per hour from the Zumanjaro: Drop of Doom at Six Flags Great Adventure—your stomach is going to feel as if it’s in your chest (another common description). When you’re being launched forward at 106.9 miles per hour in 1.8 seconds, as on the Dodonpa, it’s going to feel as if you left your stomach at the station. The Dodonpa is especially cruel to our systems of prediction and balance, as I learned later that day. There, I waited in the car as the loudspeaker began the countdown, and with each beat my body tensed up, preparing for takeoff. Finally the clock reached zero. Only, nothing happened except for me lurching forward in anticipation. The designers wisely built in a “false start” and an “accidental start,” leaving me feeling as if I just threw open a door I thought would weigh a hundred pounds but was instead light as a feather. Since gravity is acting on us all the time, our bodies are calibrated to expect to be constantly pulled to the earth at a steady rate. When that rate is radically adjusted, or not what we predicted or prepared for, our system gets confused and sounds the alarm.

Getting on a ride that shoots you straight up literally results in your insides “dropping” to the floor, or at least as low as they can get. This leaves you feeling all kinds of sensations, some caused by a drop in blood pressure, but mostly because of the signals being sent to your brain via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a mixed bundle of both afferent nerves (they send messages to the brain) and efferent nerves (they receive messages from the brain) that stretch from your brain all the way to the bottom of your stomach, or lower viscera. The vagus nerve plays a big role in our threat response: it’s an umbrella of nerves that alert us that something is wrong by collecting information—for example, the fact that your organs are “floating” around inside your torso, which they are if you’re riding the Drop of Doom—and sending the messages to the brain’s limbic region, where you process threat. Researchers in Zurich have also found that it plays a central role in our responses to innate fears; when a rat’s vagus nerve is severed, it exhibits a lower level of fear of open spaces and bright lights. The human equivalent of this might be a lack of fear while standing right on the edge of the Grand Canyon.

The vagus nerve also works with the parasympathetic system (the rest and digest part of the autonomic nervous system) to lower heart rate and blood pressure. In fact, it also signals changes in the neurotransmitters responsible for making us feel better. (Neurotransmitters are chemicals stored inside of neurons, which process and transmit information in our brain through chemical and electronic signals; different stimuli trigger different neurotransmitter responses.) In fact, current research shows that vagus nerve stimulation through an implant that delivers electric pulses may be an effective intervention for people with treatment-resistant depression. Needless to say, if electric stimulation of the vagus nerve through a surgical implant can help those with depression, just imagine what a roller coaster ride can do for the masses. No wonder people are standing in line four hours for a two-minute thrill.

Not everyone likes these sensations. For example, those who fear flying relate these sensations to the anxiety-inducing feelings that occur during takeoff. For others, the intense g-force can feel like a panic attack, which I can empathize with. It feels the same because it essentially is the same physiologically: panic attacks involve the same systems and symptoms of the threat response—sweating, heart racing, chest pounding, dizziness, and basically feeling you’re going to die. It makes sense that someone who has only experienced these sensations in the context of a panic attack wouldn’t like them. Lucky for me, I was riding roller coasters long before I started waking up at three in the morning feeling as if I were being crushed by an invisible anvil.

For me, the crushing weight and my racing heart while climbing to the top of a 141-foot hill inside a small car attached to an elaborate metal beast signal not panic but relief. I know that as soon as the car tips over the apex, I’ll feel as if I’m flying, weightless and wonderful. This is just one reason I love thrill rides (we also release dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitter, in anticipation of doing something rewarding); I never know how long a panic attack will last, but I know when I get on a roller coaster, in two minutes I’ll return to the station, feet flat on the ground, feeling good and liberated.


My screaming came to an abrupt halt after the Takabisha looped through an “inverted top hat” and over two “airtime” hills and slowed to a crawl around a 180-degree corner. I gasped as I saw the track take a 90-degree turn straight up. As the car latched into place, the chain lift began its click-click-click, and soon I was perpendicular to the ground and beginning the upward climb. Fastened tightly into my seat with my back to the ground, I felt heavy and unmovable, like a sack of potatoes (gravity works on our organs separately—we can’t feel our organs the way we can our skin, but our nerves pick up different, loose sensations inside of us). The car was silent except for the click-click of the chain lift. Gazing up into the open sky in front of me, I felt the whole world drop away, and I was ready for liftoff.

The anticipation was excruciating as the car slowly climbed the steep hill to the top—where it paused. And the view was incredible: Mount Fuji in the distance against a clear sky, looking back at me with royal wisdom. But that moment didn’t last long. My attention was quickly diverted back to the disappearing track in front of me. Because the angle is 121 degrees, you cannot see the track as it curves back against itself. This is terrifying; it looks as though the car will unlatch from the track and go plummeting to the ground, scattering its passengers into the air like the sacks of potatoes we were.

As the car inched forward over the peak, my legs started shaking uncontrollably, and I kept repeating, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.” Suspended in midair, 141 feet high, I could feel every muscle in my body wrap forcefully around my bones as I braced against the restraints, preparing for the eventual drop. Even my teeth were clenched. I forced my tightly curled fists over my head and extended my arms as far as I could (it really does make it more intense!). Finally, the car tipped over the apex and dove toward the ground. I started screaming louder than I ever have before, as tears streamed down my face.

Adapted from "SCREAM: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear" by Margee Kerr. Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs. All rights reserved.

By Margee Kerr

Margee Kerr has a PhD in sociology from the University of Pittsburgh, where she currently teaches and conducts research on fear, with a focus on how and why people engage with frightening or thrilling material and activities like haunted houses, the paranormal, and thrill rides. She is the author of "Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear."

MORE FROM Margee Kerr

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Halloween Neuroscience Roller Coaster Science