The world, at this Halloweenish time of year, seems to be divided into two groups. Those who feast on the adrenaline rush that comes from walking into a dark basement, who are first in line to see “The Green Inferno,” who like to be chased by a ghoul with a saw.
And my group:
Twin Cities Horror Festival? No, thanks.
Dead-end hayride? Again, nope.
Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement? Definitely nope.
Anybody want to see the new “Peanuts” movie?
I’ve long wondered why we’re wired so differently. It can’t be totally genetics, because I birthed children who can’t wait to be locked into the Power Tower, Valleyfair’s white-knuckle ride that drops 250 feet at up to 50 miles per hour.
I decided to explore this great divide by seeking out people who make a living studying human reactions to scary things.
Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, specializes in risk-taking and thrill-seeking. Margee Kerr is a sociologist with a new book out, called “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.”
Here’s what they had to say about us scaredy cats.
We are, in fact, somewhat hard-wired from birth to seek out, or avoid, scary stuff. Farley has spent years studying what he calls “Type T” (thrill-seeking) personalities, those who seek the rush provided at physical extremes, whether it’s tightrope walking, race-car driving or bungee jumping.
Parents might recognize this trait in their children from early on, “such as the child who runs from Mom and sneaks off into the woods, or who approaches a stranger or an unfamiliar animal. You can,” Farley said, “expect differences in families.”
While Farley wouldn’t put himself in the Type T camp, Kerr certainly fits.
I caught up with Kerr while she was in Los Angeles monitoring a reality show in which people are buried alive 6 feet underground (and, eventually, unearthed, of course). She told me she volunteered to be one of the buried subjects, but they didn’t need her.
Kerr remembers being “incredibly adventurous” as a kid. “I leaned toward not being afraid of anything, but I was also very impulsive,” she said.
“I grew up riding horses and I’d do fun, reckless things, like jump off a fence onto a pony’s back, with no bridle, no saddle, just holding onto his mane.”
In recent years, Kerr has sky-dived and spent a night in the “punishment hole” of a historic cell in Philadelphia in total darkness. She has walked to the edge of Toronto’s CN Tower on a 3-foot-wide metal grate — 1,800 feet above the ground.
“I have never felt my body have that kind of reaction,” she said. “It was so over the top.”
But too scary? Not for Kerr.
Interestingly, she has known paralyzing fear, and not in the setting one might expect. While strolling alone in Bogota, Colombia, she got lost in the historic district.
“Nothing happened,” she said. But she grew increasingly panicked about what could happen.
“Am I going to be robbed? Kidnapped? I just burst into tears. I ran to a cafe and sat inside.”
Her story supports another truth about fear. There isn’t just one kind.
There are palpable, real-world fears (walking alone at night, a home invasion) and Hollywood-inspired imagined fears (creepy clowns, creepier kids). There are those aforementioned physical pursuits that push the envelope, and psychological scares, too.
We often avoid some types and seek out others.
Farley’s No. 1 fear, already experienced, is losing his train of thought while speaking to a college class of 600 students. “I just totally lost it. I told them, ‘Take a break. I have to check something.’ ”
It is no surprise to Farley that “public speaking” pops up on many Top Fears lists.
“When you’re in front of an audience, the focus is on you. You could stumble, fall, say something stupid, mix things up. Babble. And wonder, Did I zip up my fly?’ ”
All in all, the two agree that it’s OK to be scared in logical situations. Fear is your body screaming, “self-preservation!”
“If you don’t like being scared, that’s fine,” Kerr said. “It’s just a matter of preference. Some people like rock. Some people like country.”
But they also agree that there are compelling reasons to push ourselves — just a bit.
“The risk-taking impulse has created the modern world,” Farley said. “It’s led people to cross the mountain, sail to the sunset and discover you don’t drop off.
“People on their deathbeds bemoan the things they didn’t do more than the things they did do,” he said.
Kerr points out a thoroughly practical reason to allow our kids, Type T or not, more freedom to safely take risks, ranging from riding a bike to the park to speaking in front of their student body to launching off a zip line.
“A lot of kids going to college are having huge mental breakdowns because they never have had anything scary happen to them and they don’t know how to handle it,” she said. “It is dangerous to not know your own threat response and to not challenge yourself at all. We need opportunities to test ourselves.”