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Scary rides appeal to beastly side; science says paying to be afraid unleashes positive, energetic, happy feelings

(by Sarah Douziech, The Province)


Jeff Hutton and his 10-year-old sister Jamie are hurtled around the curves and drops of the PNE’s historic wooden roller-coaster at 60 kilometres per hour Monday.


Blood-curdling screams punctuate the constant, deep rumble of the cars on the winding track.


“It’s exhilarating,” says Hutton, 23.


He and his sister are among thousands who flock to the fair annually to experience one of their most primal emotions: fear.


Why pay to be afraid?


Experts have a few theories, says Paul Budra, a Simon Fraser University English professor who studies horror literature and our attraction to it.


Now that modern-day humans aren’t at imminent risk of being eaten by sabre-tooth tigers, riding scary roller-coasters could be one way to exercise our ancestors’ hardwired fight-or-flight response.


” We find that somehow pleasurable,” Budra says. “It puts us back in touch with our basic human essence.”


Or it could be that post-ride, we experience a sense of euphoria from enduring something difficult.


Or it could be simpler.


Although our analytical mind might say no to danger, our bodies say yes, Budra says.


“We enjoy emotional states,” he says. “We like the play of emotions in our body and what it does to us.”


Clinical psychologist Joti Samra says our fight-or-flight response triggers powerful chemicals like adrenalin and serotonin.


“That’s the rush that people would describe,” Samra says.


Adrenalin makes us feel positive and energetic while serotonin makes us feel happy. The key is experiencing them in short spurts in a safe environment, Samra says. It’s why fair rides are perfect for gaining pleasure from an otherwise be traumatic emotion.


But fair rides aren’t for everyone.


Graeme Leigh, a PNE ride operator for 10 years, says he’s seen many reactions over the years.


“[People] get pretty excited and they’re ready to go again. Other people just scream the whole time, and sometimes people say they’ll never go on it again,” he says. “Some people cry.”


Courtney Karg, assistant manager of the PNE’s haunted attractions, says she’s even seen people wet their pants.


To test your limits, Leigh recommends: The Hellevator, where you can “lose your stomach,” The Revelation, this year’s new ride, Atmos-FEAR, or the classic roller-coaster.


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