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A Doctor Looks at Halloween

We take Halloween pretty seriously at our house. The tombstones go out on the lawn, the fuse box is rewired to flicker the house lights in response to the huge wattage of sound I blast out of my balcony speakers. Considering we get about 300 children coming through, we're not overly generous with the candy, but we do give them a show. Is it some dark, devilish side to us that makes us do this? No. We're Catholic.

I think it's that we enjoy stimulating the secretion of epinephrine from children's adrenal glands. It's also called adrenalin (from the adrenal gland that makes it), and it's a substance so intimately identified with our mammalian lineage as to figure into our survival as a species. It's also been referred to as the "fight or flight" hormone, because it prepares us to take a stand or run away from a threat. And it does this almost at the spinal level, because some threats come so quickly that the brain doesn't have time to go to committee and take a vote.

Adrenalin is an amazing chemical. It's a neurotransmitter, and it makes nerve cells fire off down the line in the types of nerves that respond to danger. It decreases the tone of the stomach while contracting all of our sphincters. We don't want to worry about indigestion or incontinence while fighting or running away. It shunts most of the blood supply to our skeletal muscles, the ones we really want to count on in a pinch. It contracts the pilomotor muscles, causing our hair to stand on end, not as useful to us as it is to a frightened cat using this little trick to look bigger than it really is. It constricts our blood vessels to raise our blood pressure while increasing the strength and rate of our hearts so that we can rise suddenly to a physical challenge. It causes our pupils to dilate so that we can see more. It raises blood sugar for quick energy, as well as increasing breakdown of fat for a backup. It relaxes bronchial muscles so that we'll take in more air for more oxygen to supply the increase in blood flow to our muscles. And it does all this simultaneously. We're ready to fight. We're ready for flight.

We're ready for anything.

Lions, bullies, rhinos, bullets, flats on the Causeway--even monsters. And this is where my house comes in on Halloween. The kids come a'knockin' and the adrenalin starts a'flowin'. It's my job on All Hallows' Eve to wring their little adrenal glands to effect a mass response. And as a doctor I often find myself asking, Why is the flow of a neurotransmitter designed to negotiate life-threatening events--fun? I don't know. Neither do any of my medical books. I've looked. But we all love it. It's a part of growing up, from Halloween to roller coasters, from suspenseful movies to scary books. Really, it was designed to be used when we were about to be swallowed or clobbered or fried, but we love the feel of the stuff when we know we're actually safe. Maybe that's the fun part--pulling the fire alarm when there's really not a fire (haven't we always wanted to do that?). In these civilized times we seldom need to fear being pounced on by tigers, but it doesn't hurt to lubricate the machine once in a while. Or once a year, even. I lay in wait.


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