As a “latchkey kid” who grew up in ’80s Amarillo, Jason Wiseman biked to the local video store and hid the films he hoped to rent behind a tape he figured no one would want. Later, when his dad got off work, he’d reveal the stash. “We would rent all the movies I’d hidden earlier,” he said. “I had a system.”
At 47, Wiseman now lives in Fort Worth. He still calls himself a “film geek.” He’s a member of The Grand Berry Theater’s monthly film club, he hosts movie nights every Monday and, just before the pandemic, he formed The Reel House Foundation, a nonprofit with a mission to make art accessible for everyone through film.
The genre he returns to again and again, he said, is horror. Stories “about ghosts, about aliens and about those creepy crawly things that go bump in the night,” they’ve enchanted him since he was a boy. Bring on the people you wake to find at the foot of your bed. Bring on the dolls. In the weeks leading up to Halloween, he’s watching a horror film every day. “There’s no stopping it in October, really.”
The jump scares work for him, but the fear they invoke is contained. “You can turn it off after two hours, or close the book and still scare yourself to sleep, but still feel relatively safe,” he said. “That things are going to be OK.”
If horrors spill from stories into reality, however, Halloween becomes much more complex. When clowns or, more accurately, reports of clowns began cropping up across the country in 2016, for example, it wasn’t exactly a fun scare.
“That was creepy, right? People did not like that — because they had no control. They didn’t walk down the street expecting that clown to be there,” Katie Russell, a licensed professional counselor and trauma expert in Denton, said. “But in a haunted house? Yeah, a clown could chase you with a chainsaw. You can be freaked out, but it’s also OK, because you paid for it.”
These “creepy clown hoaxes,” as The New York Times dubbed them, tapped into the uneasy relationship some people have with Halloween. For some, the holiday is darkly jolly; for others, it serves to trigger past traumas.
“We have to be very careful with Halloween,” said David Farmer, a licensed professional counselor who teaches at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine. “Some people really enjoy it, and they really get into it. They decorate for it, they dress up for it. Scaring people can be fun to them and thrilling to them. But again, we need to be sensitive to those around us who have experienced trauma — and we may not be familiar with the trauma they’ve experienced.”
The difference stems, in part, from a person’s own history with traumatic events, whether they’ve trained for current ones and their attunement with their bodies.
Why do some people like to feel afraid?
For Wiseman, horror serves multiple purposes.
The films are “frightening and titillating,” he said. They stimulate not only physically but morally and intellectually — horror films have grappled with social issues long before mainstream movies. (Most recently, Nia DaCosta’s “Candyman” served this role for him.)
Horror films also offer escapism from the “realistic horrors of life,” he said. And yet, at the same time, they act as a microcosm of those horrors: a contained space in which to feel fear and then, almost immediately, relief. In doing so, they remind him more globally that “there is an end to this scare.”
“It’s like an encapsulated moment in time where you are scared, and then immediately you’re allowed to feel OK,” he said.
That initial feeling of being awake, alert and alive — a byproduct of the body’s response to a scary situation — can be “exhilarating” for some people, Russell, the licensed professional counselor, said. (Of course, not everyone likes this feeling: Some emotions simply feel “more comfortable” to people than others, possibly because of past experiences or how people were taught to embrace or avoid certain emotions, she said.)
Russell leads group therapy sessions for people from all over north Texas, especially those who’ve experienced complex childhood trauma, at University Behavioral Health in Denton. Her work centers the body’s relationship with trauma.
When a person enters a haunted house, a fighting match, even a football game, that space “activates a part of our nervous system that we don’t normally get to experience and provides a socially acceptable outlet for these emotions that otherwise aren’t accepted,” Russell said.
For Farmer, with the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, that outlet is rollercoasters. He finds them “thrilling,” an experience that moves him from a heightened sense of anxiety and anticipation to calm and safety when the ride ends.
“But think about what might happen if you’re on the rollercoaster, and it comes around and it’s time to get off the rollercoaster, but they won’t let you get off the rollercoaster,” he said. “They keep it going, and time after time, they make you ride it.”
In that moment, a shift happens for the rider — a loss of empowerment. “It’s that sense of, ‘I no longer have control over my own life,’” he said. “These decisions are being made for me, or this is being done to me.”
That feeling of empowerment is, for some people, context-specific: The difference between a plastic knife-wielding, heavily makeup’d actor popping out from behind a corner in a haunted house and a stranger with a real knife approaching them on the street.
“There’s that initial excitement we experience, but when (the stimulus) makes its way to the thinking part of the brain,” Farmer said, “we’re able to establish that, OK, this is a fake situation. This is not real.”
A person’s past experiences likewise shape how their brain and body respond, sometimes regardless of context. Someone who has experienced physical abuse may feel no sense of control even in a haunted house setting. The plastic knife looks too real, feels too true to something they’ve experienced in the past, Farmer said. On the other hand, someone who excels in martial arts may feel little fear if they were approached by a person wielding an actual knife on the street.
How does fear work?
Fear is both a “cognitive experience and a physiological experience,” Russell said — something a person knowingly feels as well as a response of the body to something that could hurt it.
“People think of fear as a bad thing,” she said. “I think of it as a really healthy thing if you’re really in touch with what you’re fearful of.”
When a person’s brain registers a threat — say, an incoming zombie — the thalamus, or part of the brain that relays sensory information, warns the amygdala, part of the brain that helps form emotion, which then alerts the hypothalamus, which triggers the body to mobilize.
Physiologically, mobilizing means activating the sympathetic nervous system, which readies the body to fight or flee. The body floods with cortisol, a stress hormone, and adrenaline. Blood pressure and heart rate increase, breathing shallows. Any system that’s not vital for survival shuts down, including the digestive system and higher-level thinking, Russell said. Even the brain’s hippocampus, which records memory, can glitch — which is why people who’ve gone through trauma don’t always remember exactly what happened and in what order.
That’s why rape survivors who testify in court don’t always recall specific details. Juries mistakenly use that lack of clarity as evidence that the rape didn’t happen, Russell said: “No … the hippocampus didn’t encode everything properly, because it was too busy just surviving.”
The body’s fear response serves as protection; listening to it keeps people alive, she said.
“We still get to survive,” she said. “We still get to have our people that we love and that we connect to, and the things we enjoy — we get to still have all those things.”
To calm the body during or immediately after a threat requires two adjustments, according to Russell’s body-centric philosophy: reducing the danger and introducing safety. So, during the hypothetical zombie attack, a reduction of danger might occur if the zombie were to trip and fall. An introduction of safety, then, would be a getaway car swiftly approaching.
“Safety looks like having some sort of connection with someone else,” Russell said. “Having a space to regroup, having a space to feel belonging.”
What happens if the body stays afraid?
If a threat lingers, though, or if a person’s body is unable to return to homeostasis, a person can develop what Russell calls a “trauma brain.”
“When we get triggered, a healthy brain will calm down in about 10 minutes,” she said. “It takes a trauma brain about two hours.”
As the body remains fearful, long-term exposure to stress hormones like cortisol disrupt how the body functions, according to the Mayo Clinic. People are more likely to develop anxiety, depression or heart disease, among other issues. Chronic stress can prematurely age the body and affect a person’s ability to safely bear children.
“If you stay in that heightened state for too long, it just exhausts your body and exhausts your mind,” Farmer said.
A healthy body will move cyclically between two states: the sympathetic nervous system, associated with “fight or flight,” and the parasympathetic nervous system, associated with “rest and digest.”
The natural movement between the two responses helps people maintain equilibrium, or “safe and social,” Russell said.
How do people heal from trauma?
Healing the body and brain from chronic fear, according to her practice, requires an intentional pursuit of safety, both within the body and without. “A common phrase is ‘story follows state,’” she said. “That is, the story that the brain creates follows a state of the body. If the body is anxious, the mind’s going to create fear-based stories.”
To help them tune into their bodies, she walks her clients, many of whom had been in therapy for years before coming to her, through a roadmap of five steps that hangs on her office wall.
Step 1, she said, is “building the alliance.” That means forming safe relationships with people, especially with her and with others in group therapy. Step 2 is to identify which spaces within the body feel tense — say, the chest or abdomen — and which don’t. Step 2 is “being able to identify your pinky as a safe space,” Russell said.
“This is what it feels like to be calm,” she said. “In your pinky right now, that’s what it feels like.”
Step 3 requires people to work through those tense spaces with movement. In her group sessions, that might look like going for a walk, creating art or throwing a ball around. “What’s happening in fear is, our body is called to protect itself through mobilization,” she said. “So we’re using that mobilizing energy instead of trying to shut it down and hold it still.”
Part of steps 2 and 3 involves recognizing “glimmers” in a person’s life, according to Russell — experiences, people, places or things that make someone feel safe. A glimmer could be something as simple as a weighted blanket that mimics the feeling of being hugged.
“A trigger brings you down into this fight-flight shutdown phase,” she said. “A glimmer brings you back up into ‘safe and social.’”
Katie Russell’s recommended reading list about trauma
- “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma” by Peter Levine
- “Emotional Sobriety: From Relationship Trauma to Resilience and Balance” by Tian Dayton
- “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, Or Self-Involved Parents” by Lindsay Gibson
In step 4, people begin to reframe their thinking and work to align body and mind. So if they feel like they’re under attack when they’re not, bringing those stories into alignment. Finally, step 5 means integrating coping skills into a person’s life.
Whether people see a therapist or not, simple practices like exercise, deep breathing and spending time in nature can also be healing, Farmer said.
Exercise requires the body to move naturally through a heightened state to a calm one; it allows people to identify the differences between tense and relaxed muscles. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Nature can ground people, their body and their senses in the present moment.
How can people approach Halloween mindfully?
As for Halloween, people can take a few steps to serve others who might be dealing with trauma, Farmer said.
If someone invites a friend to a haunted house, for example, he recommends gently checking in with that person beforehand.
“You might ask them how they feel about going into the horror house, or how they feel about a situation where they might be confronted with someone jumping out from behind the corner or attempting to scare them,” he said.
A haunted house may also include mutilated mannequins or other depictions of violence, something that could create anxiety for a person who’s been abused or seen dead bodies, he said: “Often we don’t know what trauma people have experienced in their lives.”
When it comes to his weekly movie nights, Wiseman, with The Reel House Foundation, warns attendees beforehand if the film includes sexual assault, racism, violence involving animals or other disturbing storylines and moments. He also excludes films that may be too upsetting in general. “I want people to watch and enjoy films they would normally pass by,” he said. “In that same vein, I don’t want them thinking that every week will be something too intense.”
“Let’s do something that’s fun and enjoyable. But at the same time, let’s be good neighbors to the people around us.”– David Farmer, licensed professional counselor
For people with children, Farmer recommends explaining to them what’s real and not real about a Halloween experience. And, creating space to process afterward what they’ve seen: “How did you feel when the person jumped out and scared us?”
Farmer’s not for doing away with Halloween, he said, just approaching the holiday thoughtfully, with an awareness that “what can be exciting or fun for one person may be extremely disturbing” for someone else.
“Let’s do something that’s fun and enjoyable,” he said. “But at the same time, let’s be good neighbors to the people around us, recognizing that this might not be so fun. It may be more noxious to another person because of their own life experience.”
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.