It's Halloween: Why do we enjoy a good scare?

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The Haunted Hallway at Jefferson Hills Public Library -- part of an annual fall festival held by the West Jefferson Hills Historical Society -- featured a stuffed Count Dracula intended to conjure up Hollywood-style images of mist-filled Transylvania graveyards.

In a garden, shrunken "heads" and "eyeballs" grew -- definitely not for the squeamish.

"I wish the lights were dimmer and flickered," suggested Tim Prince, 13, of Bridgeville, to "heighten the chills."

Another patron, Bill Mattes, 59, of Union, acknowledged that he, too, has enjoyed getting scared ever since viewing "Night of the Living Dead'' as a teenager. He recalled that he and friends often visited the Evans City cemetery where the movie's first zombie made his ghoulish debut in the opening scene of the 1968 film.

"We would go there at night with a full moon, and inevitably someone would drive away and leave us there," Mr. Mattes said of the youthful hijinks.

So, why do many of us enjoy getting the yell scared out of us -- especially at this time of year?

"People enjoy pretending fear in a situation in which they know they are safe," explained Joseph Cvitkovic, a psychologist and director of behavioral health care at Jefferson Regional Medical Center. "It makes for an exhilarating experience that results in a rush of adrenaline."'

Such an experience, Mr. Cvitkovic said, begins in our brain's stress response center called the amygdala, which in turn triggers cortisol and adrenaline, our stress hormones.

When they are released, the sympathetic nervous system is activated to a level that produces an adrenaline rush, resulting in a high stimulating measure of excitement.

"From a behavioral perspective, that is when we have our heart racing, and we are ready for action," Glen Getz explained.

"With horror movies or haunted houses, we can explore novel situations while knowing we're safe," said Mr. Getz, clinical neuropsychologist at Allegheny General Hospital in the West Penn Allegheny Health System.

Tammy Ziccardi, 39, of Pleasant Hills, is a fan of fright-meister author Stephen King but said she likes to get her thrills in "doses."

"I can close the book, take a few breaths, get something to eat, and go back to it," she said.

Her imagination, however, has a life all its own.

" 'The Shining' kept me up a few nights after I read it," she said.

Joyce Schmidt, 70, of Jefferson Hills, also savors a spine-tingling page turner.

"I become the victim running, and it is such an adrenaline rush," she said. "I think, 'What would I do?' Probably nothing, but I like to think I would."

Bobbie Lovelace, 43, of South Park, said she enjoys films with traditional horror characters, such as vampires and zombies, and with a diabolical plot "that leaves you sitting on the edge of your seat."

But not everyone delights in hair-raising experiences -- even when they are merely fantasy.

When Diane Cantoni of Forward was a teenager, a group of friends tricked her into going to a local Halloween haunted house.

"Once inside, you can't turn back," said Ms. Contoni, now 61. Sensing her fear, the house's characters singled her out for special treatment. One jumped out of a casket.

"I'm still scared to think of that," she said.

Mr. Cvitkovic emphasized that such "thrills" are not for everyone.

"The reaction of their nervous system to the secretion of adrenaline could be so uncomfortable that it is not a fun experience," he said.

Louise Biddle, 88, of West Elizabeth, likes being frightened by horror films -- but only in moderation.

"Afterward, I always sleep with the lights on,'' she said.

Krisha Mackulin, 30, of Jefferson Hills, donned a witch's hat and skeleton hand to guide the unsuspecting through the Haunted Hallway earlier this month.

While she is not a fan of scary movies, she said she loves the spirit of Halloween:

"It gives you an opportunity to use your imagination like no other time."

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Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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