A crazed killer waits in the dark, gripping a knife the size of hedge trimmers. A young woman steps into the room.
When Justine Newquist watches a movie scene like that, she isn't thinking she could be the victim. She's thinking how she would defend herself — which lets the 21-year-old Omaha woman enjoy the film instead of squirming for 90 minutes.
That difference, experts say, is one reason some people enjoy horror films and seek similar thrills and others wouldn't be caught dead in a haunted house.
Genetics likely play a role. So do brain chemicals. Even your upbringing can make a difference in whether you prefer couch sitting or rock climbing, said Frank Farley, a psychologist at Philadelphia's Temple University who studies risk-taking and extreme behavior.
Halloween is prime time for folks who like a good scare, because they can wander through those haunted houses or have an excuse to punch up a frightening film on TV.
"In a sense we've institutionalized a day for thrill seekers,'' he said.
Part of his research has involved interviewing people who successfully climbed Mount Everest.
A common trait among them was that most never admit they are risk takers.
"They have a strong sense they are in control of their fate,'' said Farley, former president of the American Psychological Association.
There's a big difference between scaling a mountain and hopping on a roller coaster or watching "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" for the fifth time. But the mindset among people who relish those activities can be the same, he said.
Thrill seekers possibly interpret the experience differently from tamer folks, Farley said.
Dr. Steve Wengel, a local psychiatrist, agreed.
People who love zipping up and down roller coasters like the dangerous feel, but they also realize the ride is tested. They know the chances of an accident are slim, said Wengel, chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Their minds control their fears, he said, letting the enjoyment take over.
People who avoid thrills are possibly less able to tamp down those fears. Maybe they remember reading about a roller coaster accident and think that because it had happened once, it could happen again, he said.
Empathy also could play a role in why some people won't watch horror movies. They think of themselves or a family member as the victim being chased by the madman, he said.
Newquist said one of her favorite horror movies is "Wolf Creek," a film about three hikers taken captive in the Australian outback.
A rock climber who also does ultra-distance triathlons, Newquist said when she watches the movie she is thinking of ways she would try to escape.
That's exactly the mentality of thrill seekers, Wengel said.
"Some people are more detached and look at it more technically and wonder how they create the fake blood,'' he said.
Farley said some research suggests that genetics are a factor in why some people seek thrills. It's no different, he said, from how genes can influence intelligence and medical conditions such as heart disease.
The recipe for a thrill-seeking personality also includes the brain chemical dopamine, Wengel said. It's one of the brain's pleasure-sensing chemicals.
One theory is that when certain people experience a thrill — whether a horror movie or white-water rafting — they receive a bigger burst of the chemical than others do. The idea is that people who get the bigger blast of dopamine become conditioned to hunt for thrills.
"There are some people who get addicted to roller coaster rides," Wengel said.
People also can become thrill seekers because their parents encouraged it.
Dr. Monica Arora, associate professor of psychiatry at Creighton University, said parents who encourage their children's interest in adventurous activities, such as skiing, camping and skateboarding, help foster a thrill-seeking personality.
Farley said parents play a powerful role by rewarding risk-taking with praise or squelching it with frequent warnings about potential dangers.
So if your mom or dad was a NASCAR driver, he said, chances are good you might thunder down the track someday.
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