My children’s favorite method of getting a laugh is to scare or be scared by their parents. At ages five, two, and three months, their successful attack ratio could be improved, for the reasons you might guess: they are too noisy, clumsy, impatient, amused, and (if they make it far enough) brimming with anticipation of their mother screaming like a girl and their father screaming like their mother.
They do not yet realize there are too few places to hide well in any of our rooms, which must seem capacious and camouflage-friendly at three feet tall. A few years ago, my mother and uncle took a road trip to Gloversville, New York, northwest of Schenectady, and stopped by their grandmother’s former home. Imagine my mom’s shock when the roaring creek in the backyard, fountain of youth and memories, had been reduced to a trickling stream. Now imagine her surprise upon realizing it had not been reduced at all.
Likewise, the decade in Virginia and Alabama that divided my departure from Meadowsweet Drive at age six from my teenage “homecoming” (we visited the house but landed in a different Dayton suburb), seemed to enlarge my memory of the old place while shrinking the actual property. My kids, too, will someday wonder how they ever played half the things they did in spaces so small.
But the greatest reason my children frequently fail at their favorite game is that when they do scare me, my nerviness usually has nothing to do with either their skill or my vulnerability, but in their repeated attempts to scare me a second, third, or thirteenth time inside of a minute. Now I am sure their game is up; there will be no more tries. I know this because we are standing in the kitchen, staring at each other, in the open, talking about who did and did not scare whom—yet, Boo-ya!—the scaring attempts persist, devoid of cleverness, cunning, and comedic timing. The scene is less fox outsmarting the hound than a persistently barking Chihuahua amusing, then annoying, then confusing, then frazzling, and finally freaking out a buffalo—or, as my kids may see me, a Gruffalo.
A Rush from All-Natural Chemicals
Yet I would be Gruffalo indeed, and a liar, to deny that a well-timed, masterfully executed scare is one of the most hilarious and exhilarating rushes available to predator and prey alike. Although common sense says the predator gets the better bargain, since he emerges from the attack with an ego boost commensurate to the prey’s tachycardia, science says it is not all bad for the prey: “The heart starts racing, preparing the body to fight or run by delivering more oxygen to muscles. Hormones such as endorphins are released, allowing the fearful person to temporarily ignore pain or fatigue.”
It could be worse. In fact, a 2013 Halloween article in The Atlantic says it gets better, particularly if the prey (say, a two-year-old daughter, or her 29-year-old father) trusts the predator:
To really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we’re in a safe environment. It’s all about triggering the amazing fight-or-flight response to experience the flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, but in a completely safe space. … These senses are directly tied to our fear response and activate the physical reaction, but our brain has time to process the fact that these are not “real” threats. Our brain is lightning-fast at processing threat[s].
So my children and I are doping. Don’t look at me that way; your family did it, too. But leave chemicals to the chemists for a moment. Even if my or my children’s reactions when I scare them are chemically induced or enhanced, what massive psychological somersaults must be taking place within the flash-flood of blood-curdling screams and breathless laughter, terrified eyes and irrepressible grins, fury and sweet relief?
There is more in play here than primitive survival instinct. Maybe I cannot swallow that my kids are natural drug addicts, but their frequent imperviousness even to sugar as a means of persuasion tells me that their fun with fear, like their fun without it, is more willful. I mean it’s full of the will, which in our orthodoxy means full of the soul. If I know my kids (or myself), their supercharged pleasure/panic moments consist not merely in fight-or-flight, or even in the euphoric confidence that follows an averted crisis, but in a raw, unfiltered realization: Here is someone incomprehensibly aware of me, yet ineffably merciful to me. I am now as protected as I was vulnerable. I am not merely safe; I am saved.
Nowadays I need no trips to Meadowsweet Drive, but only a well-timed pounce upon my kids, to marvel at what grand concepts play out in such small spaces.