Haunted houses and scary movies can trigger a response that isn’t fun.
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As a young child, Sheila McCrink looked forward to the fall parades and cute costumes of Halloween.
As she grew older and more independent, McCrink’s friends wanted to up the fear factor with horror movie marathons and haunted houses. That’s when Halloween became a source of anxiety.
“My last experience [with a haunted house] was when I was a teenager,” says McCrink, a PR professional. “I was in line for a couple of minutes. Then I saw the people in costumes, sprinted to my car, and locked myself in.”
McCrink says the costumed spooks followed her, throwing themselves on the windshield of her car.
“That was the last time I ever participated in something like that,” she says.
For some, haunted houses and scary movies can trigger a response that isn’t fun. In fact, they can cause feelings of anxiety.
“Halloween activates that sense of someone being in danger and being surprised and caught unaware,” says Dr. Lauren Cook, a therapist, speaker, and author. “That ignites tribal fear of human survival… People aren’t making this up. It’s happening on a biological level.”
Why some people get spooked more easily than others depends, to some extent, on how they’re wired.
Fear starts in your brain. The brain circuit responsible for responding to a threat runs through the amygdala, which has to do with emotional responses, and the periaqueductal gray (PAG) region, which directs survival behaviors.
Your amygdala is constantly calculating the potential threat value of your environment and feeding information to your PAG.
“When the amygdala feeds information to it and it detects something potentially threatening, the PAG gives you that big startle response, or not, depending on the circumstance,” says Dr. Abigail Marsh, a psychology researcher at Georgetown University and author of The Fear Factor.
This causes a rush of the hormone adrenaline, which in turn causes:
- an increased heart rate
- dilated pupils
- a heightened sense of attention and focus
“After the initial alarm bells…the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex activates. They work together to help us determine how serious this surprise-scary thing is,” says Allison Forti, PhD, LCMHC, NCC, who’s the associate director of the online counseling programs at Wake Forest University and a licensed clinical mental health counselor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
When there’s a person with a chainsaw inside a haunted house, some people may startle and jump before their brain processes that they aren’t in danger. People with anxiety may remain frightened, even when they do realize it.
“An anxious brain has a harder time modulating between the emotional brain and the thinking brain,” says Forti. “The amygdala is quicker to activate and is going to stay activated a little longer.”
So, because your mind is already alert, situations like watching scary movies and visiting haunted houses can actually be more frightening than if a friend were to sneak up behind you on an average day.
“They are already feeling anxious,” says Marsh. “When the bad thing does happen, the body is ready to respond even bigger than if you were just sitting around.”
Though you can’t help how you feel, developing coping strategies can help you ease and even largely reduce your anxiety around Halloween.
Acknowledge the problem
Having Halloween-induced anxiety may feel embarrassing, but invalidating your fears can make things worse.
“One of the fastest ways to make things harder on yourself is to say, ‘I shouldn’t feel the way I naturally feel,’” says Forti.
Once you acknowledge your feelings, don’t beat yourself up about them.
“Have mindful self-compassion for yourself,” says Cook. “Don’t shame yourself for having your fear.”
Explore why you feel the way you do
Maybe a relative jumped up behind you at a Halloween party and scared you as a kid, or maybe you’ve experienced a triggering break-in.
Exploring where your fears and anxieties come from with a therapist or through journaling can help you move past them.
“If you can understand where the fear came from, it’s easier to use that thinking part of the brain to dispute this irrational fear,” says Forti.
Understand that sometimes, it’s just biology
McCrink didn’t experience a traumatic event. Scary movies and haunted houses have always been frightening for her.
“It’s more biological,” she says. “That’s my nature.”
If that’s also the case with you, work on accepting your fear. It’s just the way your brain is processing things.
“The scary characters are fake, but the fear is real,” McCrink says.
Know when to avoid and when to confront
Your first inclination may be to avoid scary movies and haunted houses altogether, but facing your fears can actually be helpful.
“Really, the best treatment for anxiety is actively leaning into the things that scare us,” Cook says.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you challenge and handle your fears by exposing you to them.
“In a controlled situation with a therapist, you gradually work up your tolerance,” Marsh says.
You may be able to work up enough tolerance to fear that you can watch a movie with one or two scary scenes, but a haunted house may just never be your thing.
That’s perfectly OK, as long as avoiding the haunted house isn’t significantly reducing your quality of life.
“If it’s not impacting your life in any negative way or you don’t feel like you’re missing out by not going to a haunted house, hey, no worries — you don’t need to force that upon yourself,” says Cook.
Try mindful breathing
Mindful breathing can induce a relaxation response.
“In this relaxation response, you’re activating the parasympathetic nervous system, and this is what helps us turn those alarm bells off,” Forti says.
The best time to practice mindful breathing will vary from person to person. It may be in the moment or just before you go into a haunted house or watch a scary movie.
“Know yourself,” Forti says. “Do you find it’s helpful for you in the moment to do mindful breathing, or do you need to get through the haunted house and then do the mindful breathing?”
Forti warns that for some, breathing exercises in the peak of fear can cause hyperventilation.
Challenge your thoughts
Though haunted houses are understandably scary, the truth is that dolls don’t come to life and brain-eating zombies aren’t real.
Try taking a moment to ask yourself, “Is this real? Could this really happen?”
“A lot of us take our thoughts as actual truth, but sometimes we need to challenge our thoughts,” says Cook.
Of course, the plots in some movies are more plausible. That can be frightening. In this case, it’s important to ask how realistic it is and how likely it is that it’ll actually happen.
When you realize it has a very small chance of happening in real life, it can help distance you from the charge of a scary scenario.
Reframe the situation
Even Marsh, who wrote a book on fear, can get a little freaked out by scary movies. She tries to think about the scene from another angle.
“Whenever I’m watching a movie that’s scarier than I thought it would be, I remind myself, ‘This is a movie. This is an actor. They were paid a ton of money, and I bet they were having a ton of fun filming this scene,’” she says.
You might even come up with a mantra to repeat during these scary moments, like “I am safe” or “This isn’t real.”
Get support from friends
Since trips to haunted houses and scary movie nights tend to be social events, try leaning on your friends for help and comfort.
“Being around people when you are scared can help create a socially soothing response because we look to the faces of others, and we read their emotions,” Forti says. “One of the good things about emotions being contagious is it can create a calming effect.”
When a baby learning how to walk falls and their parents laugh, the baby is less likely to cry than if their parents had gasped and looked concerned.
If your friends can laugh at some of the scary characters inside a haunted house, it may help you relax as well.
It’s also important to set boundaries and expectations, such as asking a friend to link arms with you while going through a haunted house or agreeing that you have the right to leave the theater at any time during a scary movie, and no one in the group will make fun of you.
“Realize you have a choice in how you participate in Halloween,” Forti says.
Find other ways to celebrate
There’s more to Halloween than ghosts, goblins, and thrillers.
“There’s no right or wrong way to celebrate Halloween,” Forti says. “Everyone is unique, and we all enjoy it in different ways at different levels. Focus on the parts of Halloween that don’t scare you, and build your Halloween around that.”
Halloween coincides with fall and harvest season. You can try focusing on those aspects when you celebrate.
“[Think] pumpkin-flavored desserts and cozy fire-pit parties,” Forti says. “Add decorations to your house that are festive but have pumpkins smiling rather than spooky monsters or cobwebs.”
McCrink has hosted themed parties and challenged guests to come up with creative ideas for celebrity couples, animals, and other nonthreatening costumes.
She also found that she rediscovered Halloween through her kids’ eyes. She has a 4-year-old and 2-year-old, and it’s allowed her to go back to the way she used to celebrate when she enjoyed the holiday.
“[We go] to corn mazes, [do] trick-or-treating, and get really into family costumes,” she says. “This year, my daughter has mandated we all dress as characters from Frozen.”
If you don’t have children but can link up with a friend or relative who does, it’s likely they would enjoy the company.
Our response to scary things starts in the brain. For those who experience anxiety, the amygdala is quicker to activate and their brain has a harder time shifting between its emotional and thinking parts.
Developing coping mechanisms can help you manage your fears. Avoidance is generally OK, as long as your anxieties aren’t lowering your quality of life.
Lean on your friend circle for support, and know that you can find a way to celebrate Halloween that makes sense for you.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based writer. In her spare time, you can find her training for marathons and wrangling her son, Peter, and three furbabies.