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Man with very scared eyesGetty / PeopleImages

Don't Scream: Why do we find things scary?

As BBC Three show Don't Scream launches, fear experts break down the psychology behind the things that make us scream

Harvey Day
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Spiders? Clowns? Really tall buildings? 

There are lots of things that might make you scream — but why is it that we get so scared and what can we do to control these fears?

The new BBC Three reality show Don't Scream, hosted by YouTuber and comedian Yung Filly, will challenge three contestants to stifle their shrieks to win a cash prize.

This got us thinking about the psychology of being scared. So, here five fear experts explain exactly why we get so scared, what different types of scare there are and how to face up to your fears.

Why do we get scared?

"It's evolutionary, it's biological and essentially it's about survival," says Dr Warren Mansell, a psychologist at the University of Manchester and author of a book about coping with fear.

"Our bodies need a way of getting ourselves prepared to either escape or defend ourselves against some kind of threat."

"Being able to recognise and respond to a threat quickly and to get away is essential," adds sociologist Dr Margee Kerr, who specialises in the study of fear. "It's definitely kept us humans alive."

The most common way we deal with fear is the "fight-or-flight" response, when your heart rate increases and your pupils dilate. "Everything is there to get you ready to either flee from whatever is threatening you or to fight back," says Dr Mansell.

There's also the startle response — when you jump out of your skin — which is a way to get yourself away from something when you haven't got the time to even work out what it is, but it's coming at you very suddenly and very loudly.

Don t Scream Yung FillyBBC THREE
Don't Scream host Yung Filly (looking genuinely terrified)

What different types of 'scare' are there?

First up, there's the classic jump scare, explains Andy Nyman, co-creator of the long-running London horror stage play Ghost Stories, which was also turned into a 2017 film starring Martin Freeman. "Often people think that's a bit of a cheap thing to do but the reality is that it's actually quite a sophisticated thing to pull off.

"If you can get it right, misdirecting an audience properly and then giving them a jump scare is a really wonderful thing because you're properly catching them off guard."

Then, Andy goes on, there's the type of scare that you can't shake off. "These are the scares that are attached to imagery or a moment that means when you close your eyes that's all you can see. These are much deeper-rooted."

Mike Muncer, who hosts a weekly podcast about terrifying horror movies, adds that when it comes to frightening movies, the scariest are often the ones that leave us feeling unsettled.

"The best horror films are the ones where you can't explain why they're so scary. The Shining is a film that I find terrifying and I don't even know why.

"Why is it that the long empty hotel corridors or a little boy riding round on a tricycle are so scary? I don't know!"

He adds: "The best horror films give you that uncanny sense that even though nothing horrific is happening on screen, you've just got this feeling that something's wrong."

How do you make the perfect scare?

"It's about a mixture of elements — from music to lighting to special effects — that come together to create the 'perfect' moment," says Andy.

And Andy, who has just completed the technical run-through for the UK tour version of Ghost Stories, adds: "There's a lot of joy in playing around with little variables like bringing the lights up a little bit and lowering the sound slightly. It's like focussing a camera to find the perfect, terrifying moment.

"And then we get to put that in front of an audience to see if we're right. And, my god, when you have 900 people in an audience screaming with terror it's really special to think that all those technical, forensic details came together to create something that shakes them to their core."

And Don't Scare's resident fright expert Antony White, who's worked in the industry for 10 years, says it's key to build scares for all the senses. "You could build, for example, the experience of a scary butcher's shop in a black room with just the sounds of buzzing flies, the smell of rotten meat and maybe even sticky floors."

Ghost StoriesGhost Stories
Ghost Stories (pictured) has been spooking fans for a decade

If you're someone who gets scared easily, how can you control your relationship with fear?

If you're a very jumpy person who gets scared easily (or if you have a specific phobia, a severe form of fear that impacts on your life), there are things you can do on your own and with a therapist to help you improve, according to Dr Mansell.

"The first thing is to realise that it's best to take things at your own pace and that may mean you don't need to face that fear right now but you're going to do it when you're ready."

Most things that frighten people can be broken down into smaller, more manageable sections, the psychologist says. "If you're afraid of heights, for example, you can start with being just 10 centimeters off the ground and if that means you're only a tiny bit less anxious than before, then that means you're going in the right direction."

And Dr Kerr has some practical tips, too, including exposure therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and breathing exercises. "Another effective method to deal with a racing heart and panicky emotions is to move your body to channel all of that energy into a more controlled movement, so it feels like you have some sense of control," she adds. "Even doing jumping jacks can help."

But then again the chances of seeing a spider dressed as a clown on top of a very tall building are probably quite slim - so maybe you don't need to worry too much after all! 

Don’t Scream is available on iPlayer.