Frisson of Delight, Frisson of Fear

Photo Credit: Playground at First Light by Phil Moyer


I know why Joey Tribbiani put The Shining in the freezer.

Danny is outside, enjoying the sunshine on the snow of the playground. He digs into the concrete play tunnel but cannot dig out the heavy snow on the other end. He turns back and the snow he excavated at the entrance collapses. It’s dark. He’s trapped. And then he hears something crawling toward him.

Did your arm hairs just rise? If they didn’t after reading that paragraph, please read Mr. King’s book and try not to experience a “frisson of fear”. Only a number of abnormal mental conditions would allow you to remain calm while doing this.

How do you feel, seeing this photo of a playground, after reading about Danny’s peril?


What causes the “frisson of fear” and why can the goosebumps, the spine-tingling, and the heart-racing instead become a “frisson of delight”?

Admittedly, the reader’s reaction to passages like Danny’s terror on the playground is a confused mess of both fear and delight. I know I am safe, so I enjoy the fear. I throw the book in the freezer but I get it out a few minutes later to feel more.

Scientist Ginny Smith elaborates on what we already know as an adrenaline rush. The goosebumps and hair-raising “in animals would make them look bigger and scarier” like a dog with raised hackles. We’re preparing to fight. Our hearts increase their blood pumping and the “shiver” in our spines is a reaction to the changes in blood pressure.

Why, though, do we feel the same way when we listen to moving music or feel the brush of a kiss on our neck? Scientists don’t know. Some theorize that we have programmed ourselves to interpret something unexpected as pleasurable if we know logically that we are not being threatened. If you’re going to change the interpretation, might as well make it pleasure, right?

Maybe our caveman ancestor was getting teased for his fear of heights, so he made it a fun game to jump off the waterfall and then, of course, got mega laid for his bravery and now here we all are.

Evolution is evolution, of course. Fear is survival. Some perform the fear/delight switch with great aplomb, some do not. Horror movies, roller coaster rides, bungee jumping–they’re all a matter of interpretation. Your spinal column will raise your hackles and increase your blood flow regardless–it’s up to you to laugh or cry.


What do you think causes the frisson of fear felt in the gut, on a sunny day with no threat around, right before a meteorite strikes you on the head? Tell me in the comments.

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