Why We Love to Be Scared

Why We Love to Be Scared: Dopamine, Genes and a 2,000 Year Old Horror Story

It’s that time of year again. Halloween. What is it about houses moaning with restless spirits and apparitions rising from graveyard mists that so intrigue us? Today we have movies, TV shows, video games and books regaling us with the most horror-filled scenarios. Dystopias with—name your monster—demons and vampires and zombies threatening to eradicate our species (as if we don’t do a good enough job on our own). There are possessions, evil twins, vivified dolls and deranged clowns. We even have self-proclaimed ghost hunters with their own “reality” shows and the ad revenues, market penetration and viewer numbers demonstrating that scary stuff really can rake in the dough. Why is it we are so enthralled and terrified by the supernatural?

As a matter of fact, fascination with the supernatural is ancient. And some of the best ancient stories can rival today’s plotlines.

But first, let’s raise a basic question. Why do some people seek out terrifying experiences while others recoil at the very thought? This question has sparked the research of David Zald, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at Vanderbilt University, who observes that “Humans have a unique situation where we will seek out things that scare us. We’ve got to ask, what could make this exposure rewarding?”[1]

Chemical structure of dopamine.
Dr. Zald and his colleagues have discovered that dopamine, the chemical in the brain associated with pleasure and reward, seems to be differentiated in thrill–seekers and thrill-avoiders. Those with higher tolerance for risk had less autoreceptors (think of brakes) for dopamine. Thrill-avoiders had more autoreceptors.[2] Evolutionarily speaking, Dr. Zald posits that the ancestors of modern-day thrill-seekers were the most likely to survive because they used their fearlessness to discover ways to combat a harsh and unpredictable environment. These intrepid souls passed on these survival genes to subsequent generations, which likely contributed to the continuation of the species.[3]

Genetics may also play a roll according to researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany. In certain individuals they found that a variant of the gene known as Compt, which affects anxiety, causes more distress in those having the variant than in those who don’t.[4] Thus any stimuli from horror tales meant to send delightful shivers up a viewer’s spine actually can strike numbing terror into those so genetically disposed.

As with so much of modern behavior, our brains and genes and their evolutionary development determine how we respond to the world around us. And it has been that way back to the Roman Empire, where we now proceed in order to hear a 2,000 year old ghost story.

“Como – Dom – Fassade – Plinius der Jüngere” by Wolfgang Sauber – Own work. Wikimedia Commons
Pliny the Younger (61 – c. 113 CE) was a highly respected lawyer, administrator and author in ancient Rome. He is best known for his voluminous trove of letters written during his lifetime that provides a captivating view of Roman culture and times. While his letters run the gamut of topics, it is intriguing to turn to Pliny’s stories of otherworldly occurrences. As we know, the creative arts often arise from personal experiences of the author. We can only speculate that Pliny the Younger’s loss of his uncle in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius had a profound effect on the 17 year old. His description of the carnage is worthy of any modern disaster movie:

We also saw the sea sucked away and apparently forced back by the earthquake: at any rate it receded from the shore so that quantities of sea creatures were left stranded on dry sand. On the landward side a fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning magnified in size.[5]

What is most remarkable about Pliny’s stories is how they transcend time and culture. He is a master storyteller and chronicler able to move an audience nearly 2,000 years later. This imaginative spirit can be seen throughout his writings.

Pliny wrote a number of letters telling of stories he had heard or been told regarding restless spirits and strange incidents for which there could be offered no explanation. Below is a version of Pliny the Younger’s story concerning a restless spirit and a haunted house. You can also listen to an audio version of this story and two other tales of the paranormal from Pliny. As you see, the motifs are quite similar to today’s horror fests of mind-bending, spine-tingling happenings and earth-bound souls. Notice how he builds suspense, using elements that provoke fear and offering vivid descriptions that lend authenticity to the retelling of the tale.

The Library
There was in Athens a house, spacious and open, but with an infamous reputation, as if filled with pestilence. For in the dead of night, a noise like the clashing of iron could be heard. And if one listened carefully, it sounded like the rattling of chains. At first the noise seemed to be at a distance, but then it would approach, nearer, nearer, nearer. Suddenly a phantom would appear, an old man, pale and emaciated, with a long beard, and hair that appeared driven by the wind. The fetters on his feet and hands rattled as he moved them.

Any dwellers in the house passed sleepless nights under the most dismal terrors imaginable. The nights without rest led them to a kind of madness, and as the horrors in their minds increased, onto a path toward death. Even in the daytime–when the phantom did not appear–the memory of the nightmare was so strong that it still passed before their eyes. The terror remained when the cause of it was gone.

Damned as uninhabitable, the house was at last deserted, left to the spectral monster. But in hope that some tenant might be found who was unaware of the malevolence within it, the house was posted for rent or sale.

It happened that a philosopher named Athenodorus came to Athens at that time. Reading the posted bill, he discovered the dwelling’s price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion, yet when he heard the whole story, he was not in the least put off. Indeed, he was eager to take the place. And did so immediately.

As evening drew near, Athenodorus had a couch prepared for him in the front section of the house. He asked for a light and his writing materials, then dismissed his retainers. To keep his mind from being distracted by vain terrors of imaginary noises and apparitions, he directed all his energy toward his writing.

For a time the night was silent. Then came the rattling of fetters. Athenodorus neither lifted up his eyes, nor laid down his pen. Instead he closed his ears by concentrating on his work. But the noise increased and advanced closer till it seemed to be at the door, and at last in the very chamber. Athenodorus looked round and saw the apparition exactly as it had been described to him. It stood before him, beckoning with one finger.

Athenodorus made a sign with his hand that the visitor should wait a little, and bent over his work. The ghost, however, shook the chains over the philosopher’s head, beckoning as before. Athenodorus now took up his lamp and followed. The ghost moved slowly, as if held back by his chains. Once it reached the courtyard, it suddenly vanished.

Athenodorus, now deserted, carefully marked the spot with a handful of grass and leaves. The next day he asked the magistrate to have the spot dug up. There they found–intertwined with chains–the bones that were all that remained of a body that had long lain in the ground. Carefully, the skeletal relics were collected and given proper burial, at public expense. The tortured ancient was at rest. And the house in Athens was haunted no more.[6]

Don’t miss Thursday’s post, which will feature another haunted house tale, this time told by a modern author who specializes in Gothic twists. More bumps in the night coming your way. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

[1] Ringo, A. (2013, October 31). Why Do Some Brains Enjoy Fear? Retrieved October 21, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Radice, B. (n.d.). Pliny the Younger, Letters 6.16 and 6.20. Retrieved October 21, 2014, from http://www.u.arizona.edu/~afutrell/404b/web rdgs/pliny on vesuvius.htm

[6] The Library: An Ancient Ghost Story. (n.d.). Retrieved October 21, 2014.