Tony Sherrill still shudders at the thought of what happened to him on one of the most frightening nights of his life.
He's walking down a hallway. It's pitch-black. Suddenly, a guy with a leaf blower jumps out at him. Then another lunatic fires up a chain saw and starts giving chase.
"I was honestly scared out of my mind," recalls Sherrill, 37, of Charlotte. "Once I got outside, I busted out laughing, hysterically."
This is exactly the type of reaction that owners of area haunted houses want to elicit from guests, and how makers of horror movies hope audiences will respond.
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For thrill seekers like Sherrill, fear is synonymous with fun. This month, they'll head to places like SCarowinds, Belmont's Haunted Mill (the place that scared Sherrill silly) and the N.C. Music Factory's new Fright Factory in search of a few good frights.
But have you ever considered why people take so much pleasure from being so terrified?
Part of the appeal is that it delivers an adrenaline rush in a controlled setting.
"We get to vicariously experience the 'high' or thrill of the horror ... without the risk," says Philip Rutledge, a lecturer in the sociology department at UNC Charlotte. "In horror fantasy, we suspend disbelief and allow ourselves to consider and experience the unthinkable, all the while knowing that we put ourselves in this situation by choice and can voluntarily opt out."
Even nonexperts get it.
Says Katie White, 26, of Charlotte: "I don't enjoy truly fearful things in life. But scary movies, haunted houses, ghost stories - I love to freak myself out with them. ... It's a bit of a rush, with no real risk."
A crash course in psychology
But it goes deeper than that, says Jeffrey Rudski, a psychology professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.
Submitting yourself to a scary situation "shows those around you that you are fearless," Rudski says. "There is a lot of research in evolutionary psychology that animals will engage in behaviors that put them at risk as a way of showing how 'fit' they are.
"Think of the times in college where people would practically compete to see who could get their blood-alcohol level the highest, drive the fastest, etc. There seem to be 'bragging rights' to being reckless, yet still surviving to tell the tale."
Carolyn Kaufman, a clinical psychologist, professor and motivational speaker from Columbus, Ohio, also thinks fear and excitement simply go hand in hand.
"There's a classic study where researchers put men in a two different situations with an attractive woman. The scary situation condition led to many, many more of the men asking the woman for her number - because they interpreted their anxiety as excitement, or attraction," she says.
"In other words, scary situations can be very exciting - and the euphoria you experience when you get through it isn't bad, either."
There's no turning back now
Of course, human beings are all wired differently. Some will come away from "The Exorcist" not the least bit fazed; others will have nightmares for months. Some will walk out of a haunted house laughing their heads off; others will completely lose it.
In 13 years as the owner of the Haunted Mill, Kevin Blanchfield has seen some pretty scary reactions from visitors.
"I've had people freeze in there. They won't go anywhere, they're so petrified. They attach themselves to a pole. I had to turn the lights on to get 'em out. I've had people puke on us, I've had people wet themselves. ... I've got oxygen tanks at each location because people hyperventilate," says Blanchfield, who also is a partner on the new N.C. Fright Factory attraction.
In recent years, he also has gotten tough on customers who don't seem to realize where they are and what the point is until after they've ponied up their dough.
"I have signs up that actually say 'No Chicken Refunds,' because people will get in the first or second room and they want out, want their money back, because they're so petrified," Blanchfield says.
"You know, you've gotta make a decision. If you go to a horror movie and buy a ticket for 12 bucks, you're sitting in the middle of 'Saw V,' and you say, 'Well, this is too horrifying for me. I'm leaving. Can I get my money back?' Doesn't happen."