Dear Dr. Universe: Why do we find some things scary? -Jack H., 8, UK
While our fears might be different, we all get scared sometimes. Vacuums, dogs, and even cucumbers make my hair stand on end. Perhaps for you it’s spiders, the dark, or the thought of monsters under your bed.
My friend Michael Delahoyde is really curious about what freaks us out. As an English professor at Washington State University, he’s even taught a course about monsters.
Delahoyde explained that our brains like to categorize information to help us make sense of our world. But monsters sort of live between different categories.
“We are comfortable with animals. We are comfortable with humans. We’ve got the distinctions down,” Delahoyde said. “But when you have a monster, like a werewolf who is somewhere in the middle, then it freaks us out.”
We can’t quite put our finger on what is happening, so we feel a sense of uncertainty. Zombies also break categories and laws of nature, as they are both living and dead.
Every culture has its own monsters, too. One in Japan is the bakeneko, a supernatural, shape-shifting cat creature whose presence in stories is often seen as a sign that a strange event is about to occur.
Our hearts start pumping. Our pupils get bigger. Our hands get sweaty. We might even get goose bumps or chills. The fear center of our brain, a little almond-shaped part called the amygdala, gets to work.
Our brain and body are getting ready to make a decision about what to do in the scary situation. We have to decide whether to face it or run away.
In some situations, our response to this fight-or-flight situation can be thrilling. That’s why some people actually enjoy watching scary movies. They know they are safe, even if they occasionally have to cover their eyes with their paws.
My friend Jaak Panksepp, a researcher in the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, is also curious about emotions, like fear, in animals.
All of our brains contain a fear system, he explained, which is designed to protect us from harm. When this system is at work, we have a feeling that can be described as scary.
While our ancestors may not have come face-to-face with werewolves, they may have encountered a saber-toothed cat. They would have to make a decision to fight it or run. The fear system automatically tells us to avoid such situations. It also helps us figure out, often in an instant, how to deal with similar frightening events in the future. Fear helps us survive.
Our personal fears can actually change, as we grow older, too. We might become fearful of new things or learn to become less afraid of the things we once feared, like dogs or monsters under the bed.
Do you have an idea for a monster of your own or a scary story to share? Send in your drawings or stories to Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.
Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Send in a question of your own at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu.