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I like to watch other people in horror.
–Delaney McGowan, age six, smiling while watching screaming riders on the GOLIATH rollercoaster at Six Flags Over Georgia

Now I know for a fact that she doesn’t enjoy genuine suffering in others, but Linky and I both like to watch other lunatics in the grip of relatively benign and self-selected terrors – ten story drops on a coaster or a bungee, for example, things neither she nor I would do ourselves, thangyavurrymush.

But my daughter hasn’t yet noticed the thing that really puzzles me: they aren’t actually “in horror.” They are, most of them, thoroughly enjoying themselves.

I don’t get it.

I don’t get it for two reasons. The first is that I don’t understand how one of our greatest naturally-selected fears – the fear of falling, of which rollercoasting is a (barely) controlled simulacrum – got itself converted to one of our greatest thrills.

Sure, I can rationalize it – something about confronting death and emerging victorious, I guess. But that’s neocortical stuff. When I find myself (usually as a result of succumbing to the shamelessly repeated lie, “Come on, it’ll be fun!!” from my spawn) plunging down a near-vertical drop of ten stories at freeway speeds, my neocortex is huddled in a corner of my skull, wetting itself. The limbic system naturally grabs the wheel, screaming something about the fast-approaching jungle floor.

It’s not that I’m not a thrillseeker. I yearn to be thrilled. We all do. The question is what thrills you. I happen to be thrilled by perfect comedic timing, a blow-your-hair-back argument on any side of any issue, long sightlines over water or wilderness, mutually great sex, devastating musical harmony, unforeseen movie plot twists, Connor’s inventiveness and Delaney’s machine-gun laugh. I can sometimes even get my mind clear enough to be thrilled to be alive.

Which is exactly why simulated death-defiance makes me really, really unhappy.

I don’t call it a phobia, since “phobia” is defined as an irrational fear. A paralyzing fear of Regis Philbin or of macaroni might be irrational. Fear of death, or of things that could lead to it, is not.1

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Cut to a speedboat coursing over the Lake of the Ozarks last week. (It’s a family reunion that includes a half dozen sporty cousins of mine who water-ski, Seadoo, skydive, speedboat, parasail, and just generally court risk as avidly as I avoid it. I’m in my forty-fifth year of hearing “Aw, come on!” from them and feeling like a poodle in a dogsled team.) From the back of the boat runs a rope, taut and twanging like a string on a washtub bass. At the end of the rope is an inflated tube, across which is sprawled my thirteen-year-old son and his younger cousin.

The boat makes a quick turn and the tube is sent skittering sidelong over the wake. Though it’s been years, I have done this, so I know that moment. If the turn is fast enough and the water rough enough, the tube will gradually tip, then vibrate, and finally tumble wildly like a flipped coin, throwing the rider or riders into the water at 40 mph. If you’re lucky, you end up in the path of a drunk hillbilly on a Seadoo, and death comes quickly.

Okay, I’m projecting.

But here’s the thing. I looked back at the face of my boy, right in the moment of maximum instability, the very moment when my own face would be a mask of concentrated unhappiness, and he was smiling. No no, not just smiling: his face looked to be in danger of splitting wide open. At the exact moment I would be least happy, his joy was positively orgasmic.

Why?

I’ve always figured my dad’s death when I was thirteen had something to do with my risk-aversion. I certainly lost all illusions of my immortality that day. But I’ve since learned that PET scan research is turning up two very different neurological responses to danger. It seems that you are either wired to love or hate the experience of risk. So maybe I’ve always been wired to hate it. The question remains: why did natural selection endow anyone, much less a sizable whack of humanity, with such a rabid taste for it?

Yesterday was another risk-immersion experience for me: a family trip to Six Flags. We divided into two groups by wiring: Connor, a friend, and Connor’s awesome (and risk-okiedokie) Aunt Beth went one way…

…while Becca, her mom, the girls and I went another.

In our final minutes at the park, Erin and Delaney suddenly decided it was time for a bit of terror and pointed to Splashwater Falls. It’s the simplest of all log flumes. No futzing around with zigzag courses through faux mountains and animatronic mining camps. They simply take you to the top of a 50-foot water drop and send you hastily down.

“You sure about this one?” I asked Delaney, who has a history of screaming for release from rollercoasters in the seconds before departure.

“Yep!”

“Okay! I’m psyched!” I actually was. For some reason I love water rides, no matter how insane.

It was on the incredibly long uphill, during that unmistakable ratcheting for which you know you’ll shortly pay, that she started to lose it. Nooooooooooo, she moaned, then began sobbing hard. Noooohohohohohohoho…

I put my arm around her. “You know we’re safe, right?” I said. No answer. She was now no-kidding terrified. “You won’t even believe how quick it goes,” I offered, knowing that I could only have sounded like the ax-wielding executioner whispering to Anne Boleyn.

We left the top, dropped like a rock, and I felt – there was no mistaking it – a genuine thrill. We hit the bottom, sending a magnificent wall of water over the crowd on the bridge. I was laughing like an idiot.

Then I remembered. I turned to Delaney, who was soaked to the skin. She slowly turned to look at me, her eyes intense.

“Again,” she said. “Again.”

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1Even though the “irrational fear of death” has its own name, thanatophobia, it shouldn’t.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.