William & Mary

Thrash on Halloween: Embrace the chills

{{youtube:medium|UmqQnmaDnmM, Chills: Thrash on the good kinds and the bad.}}
Ghosts and goblins, princesses and fairies: Each year millions of children and adults don fantasy costumes in attempts to elicit in others the “chills.”  According to Todd Thrash, associate professor of psychology at William & Mary, the process of scaring and awing is — at least in evolutionary hindsight — a useful and an integrating thing.

Thrash has been studying “chills” at the university since 2009. In early research, participants pointed toward four distinct bodily sensations when asked to define “the chills.” In general, these were goose bumps, tingling, coldness and shivers.

In later research, Thrash found that goose bumps and tingling tend to co-occur and that coldness and shivers tend to co-occur. The combination of goose bumps and tingling is the ‘good’ kind of chills, which he called “goosetingles.” The combination of coldness and shivers is the ‘bad’ kind, which he called “coldshivers.” 

“Goosetingles tend to be positive responses to aesthetic beauty, to sexual excitement, to awe,” Thrash explained. “Cold shivers are responses to threats, such as achievement threats that happen when people face failure, or to physical threats in the environment, such as the presence of a ghost—even a psychopath.”

Chills experiences provide signals that something important is happening. Whereas a person can experience a mood such as sadness without knowing the precise time or place where the mood engaged, “chills are unmistakable, discrete, intentional in the philosophical sense that they have an object,” he said. “They bring our attention to things that probably were important to our survival, not necessarily things that we value in the abstract.”

Thrash elicits chills in participants by having them watch emotionally potent video clips. Participants report their sensations, and, in some studies, they are hooked up to the “goose caboose,” a measuring device attached to the forearm skin. Included in his developing library of film clips are several that are unusually effective at producing goosetingles. Among the best known of these is footage of Susan Boyle’s well-documented emergence on the show Britain’s Got Talent. “Here comes this unattractive woman for whom the audience has low expectations and she performs beautifully,” Thrash said. “The crowd is enthralled.”

Among the videos notorious for producing coldshivers are episodes from “Nip /Tuck.” One clip features a team of plastic surgeons happily chit-chatting while cutting the face of their patient. Unknown to them, the patient is semi-conscious due to insufficient anesthesia. In her mind, she is being tortured while her doctors are oblivious.

Many chills videos share similar elements of dissonance, Thrash observed. “There is a mismatch between the destruction that is happening and the cues surrounding it.” This commonality raises for Thrash the specter that chills may have served as warnings against psychopaths, he said. “The basic wiring for chills responses was already in place because chills responses originally served a cold-defense function,” he added. “For instance, goose bumps improve insulation and shivering generates heat.”

Citing research results, Thrash suggests that, on average, a person will experience chills three times during a two-week period.  Other participants reported chills occurring as many as 15 times during that timespan; some reported no instances of the chills.

As to whether such instances rise during the Halloween season is unknown. Thrash, however, believes the festivities are inherently valuable.

“I think it is good for us to get in touch with the kind of experiences that speak to our body and not just our goals and values,” Thrash said. “Sometimes scary things are examples of what we care about at our core. We care about our continued existence. Being alert to these experiences can help us integrate what it means to be ourselves.”