517: Doing Scary Things

What was the scariest thing you did as a kid? Are you glad you did it?


Full episode script

In 2016, a survey of 1,003 UK parents by online bookseller The Book People found that 33% would steer clear of books for their children containing frightening characters. As The Guardian wrote:

Asked about the fictional creations they found scariest as children, a fifth of parents cited the Wicked Witch of the West from L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with the Child Catcher from Ian Fleming’s Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang in second place. Third was the Big Bad Wolf, in his grandmother-swallowing Little Red Riding Hood incarnation

All of these also are pretty tame scary things, compared to the original Grimm’s fairy tales of excruciating pain and death.

But some argue that shielding kids from scary situations could be doing them a disservice. As quoted by Cari Romm in The Cut:

Scary stories, like nightmares, are a sort of dress rehearsal for real-life fear, helping kids learn to cope with the emotion in a low-stakes setting. “How can you feel safe and secure until you know what it’s like to be afraid?” psychologist Emma Kenny told the Guardian. “The world can be a scary place — children will get into situations where they’re told off by teachers, or fall out with friends. Knowing how to confront fear is a good thing.”

Part of the process of confronting fear is also the process of understanding as much as you can about what you’re facing and how to process it. As Dr. Margee Kerr the staff sociologist at ScareHouse, a haunted house in Pittsburgh, put it to the Atlantic:

Not everyone enjoys being afraid, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that no one wants to experience a truly life-threatening situation. But there are those of us (well, a lot of us) who really enjoy the experience. First, the natural high from the fight or flight response can feel great. There is strong evidence that this isn’t just about personal choice, but our brain chemistry. The chemicals that are released during fight-or-flight can work like glue to build strong memories (“flashbulb memories”) of scary experiences, and if you’re too young to know the monsters are fake, it can be quite traumatic and something you’ll never forget, in a bad way. Our brain is lightning-fast at processing threat. I’ve seen the process thousands of times from behind the walls in ScareHouse—someone screams and jumps and then immediately starts laughing and smiling. It’s amazing to observe.

In other words, fear is an emotional reaction that our brain processes differently depending on the information it has given. And experience is information — even though information can be a good or a bad thing. So what has your experience been?

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.