Q. Why do tweens and teens love haunted houses, scary rides and horror flicks so much, especially this time of year? Why do they like purposely having the wits scared out of them?
A. "Halloween is all scary fantasy," says Sheryl Stern, a family therapist in private practice at Long Island Psychiatric in Roslyn.
When kids are young, they hold their mom and dad's hands very tightly in any kind of fearful situation, not understanding who is behind the mask or the made-up face. But once they get older, they've learned to differentiate role-play from reality. "Middle school children don't think there's really a witch following them," Stern says.
There's a lot of excitement and peer engagement involved in walking through the haunted house or watching the scary movie. And then, there's the relief at the end, which is sort of like a release of endorphins, Stern says.
"It's sort of like waking up from a nightmare. When you find out it's not real, there's such a tremendous relief of stress. 'It's only a movie.' 'It's only a mask.' 'It's only a pretend situation.' 'It's over. I don't have to be afraid anymore.'"
But it's different in this way: A nightmare seems real. In the contrived situation, kids know that the result is going to be happy. They know they aren't actually going to be chopped up by that ax-wielding zombie. And so they're thrilled to go back and put themselves through it again.