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Medicine or Malarkey: Is being scared “good” for your health?

Picture this: You’re wandering through the narrow corridors of a rickety old house, listening to distant screams and squinting into the ominous darkness ahead. Suddenly — BAM! — a clown with a horrific mask slams through a side door and shrieks into your face.

Yep, it’s almost Halloween and you’re inside a haunted house. Is there any way this bone-chilling experience could actually be healthy for you?

Scientists say yes, for the most part (really!). But, first…

What is fear?

Fear is the body’s primal response to a threat. It usually causes a physical reaction known as the “fight or flight” response. When you’re frightened, your body undergoes several immediate changes:

  • Adrenaline and other stress hormones flood your system.
  • Your heart starts pounding.
  • Breathing becomes fast and shallow.
  • Your pupils dilate to better assess escape routes.

What’s interesting about this physical response is that some people find it energizing, while others find it deeply unnerving. (Maybe this explains why your best friend loves horror movies, while you may always sit gazing into your lap, organizing your Skittles by color to avoid watching the screen.)

According to psychology professor Paul Rozin, people who enjoy a good scare display a form of what he terms “benign masochism.” These people fall into the same category as individuals who enjoy roller coasters.

“Our body receives a signal that something is dangerous, but our brain discovers that there is no actual negative effect,” Rozin says. “Mind trumps body; something unpleasant becomes pleasant.”

So — if you can stomach it — how does fear boost your health?

It’s good for your mental state. Voluntary experiences of fear release the pleasure hormones dopamine and serotonin — the same ones we get a hit of when we taste chocolate or receive a great hug. (Note that “voluntary” is the key word…)

It burns calories. When your pulse races and your body experiences a surge in adrenaline, your metabolism also kicks into high gear. Researchers at the University of Westminster found that The Shining burned 184 calories in viewers, while Jaws ate up 161.

It improves stress management. “Controlled fear” could improve how you deal with stressful experiences in the future. Think job interviews, family arguments, or making a big mistake at work.

“Our stress response system is constantly using information from the environment to make adjustments in our reactions,” says Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear. “Engaging with ‘safe’ fear may be resetting the bar of stress sensitivity.”

It boosts your immune system. Finally, a good fright can help fight off winter bugs. In a Coventry University study, blood samples were taken before and after participants watched “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Researchers found that physical fear responses caused the film viewers’ white blood cells to activate, temporarily keeping them safer from viral invasions.

So — unless you have a heart condition or pre-existing anxiety — go ahead and trick-or-treat through your neighbor’s terrifying garage this Halloween. Touching all those “monster intestine” pasta noodles and “zombie eye” peeled grapes might just benefit your body parts.