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Why We Scream and Why Screams Are So Upsetting (plus Halloween Safety Tips)

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

Halloween is a celebration to remember the dead. Mostly, we know Halloween for trick-or-treating, going to costume parties, and carving pumpkins. We also like visiting haunted houses, telling scary stories, and watching horror films for the thrill of screaming.

Scream science is a new area of study by researchers. Scientists think that hearing a scream may activate the brain’s fear center and give a signal to be cautious, or careful, and aware of the environment. Our human ancestors (people who lived long before us) had a better chance of surviving by being alert and cautious when they heard a scream. Just like a baby screaming when he or she needs food, a blood-curdling scream alerts others of a need for help.

Dr. David Poeppel

Dr. David Poeppel is a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. He collected different screams from YouTube, films, and 19 volunteer screamers who screamed in a laboratory sound booth.


The researchers first looked at the sound levels of the screams compared to normal conversation. They measured the scream’s volume and looked at how volunteers reacted to the screams. When they looked at pictures of the brain as they listened to the screams, they saw that the sounds were not processed or interpreted by the brain in the same way as normal sounds.


The brain delivers sounds from the ear to the part of the brain that makes sense of the sounds, like is the person making the sound a man or woman? Screams, though, are sent from the ear to the part of the brain that processes fear, called the amygdala. Screams are a trigger for raising your awareness. A louder scream is perceived as being more terrifying. The same reaction happened when comparing the sound of an alarm compared to the sound from a musical instrument. A loud alarm felt more terrifying because it is similar to the sound of a human scream.


Dr. Poeppel’s research helps us to understand how screams work to help us be safer in our daily lives.

Some ways to stay safe on Halloween are to:

  • wear bright colors and add reflective tape to costumes

  • put a nametag with your phone number on your costume

  • plan your trick-or-treating route to be close to home and go with an adult or in a group

  • check your candy before eating it



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