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Why We Get the Chills, and Why I Want to Give Them

The chills: goosebumps, a tingling in your scalp, hairs standing on end, a lump in your throat, tears. Many of us have experienced them at some point. Often, it’s exceptionally moving music that does it to us. Or it’s a moment in a book, play, or movie. It could come from a work of visual art. Or maybe from something like a patriotic parade or hometown sports victory.

The chills can also come from fear. Not basic fear, like there’s a dude in a hockey mask and a knife lurking around the corner, but a more existential fear of something greater than us that surpasses understanding. One of the first times I experienced this was when I was a boy, and someone told a story she heard from a friend of a friend who witnessed demonic possession. I totally bought the story at the time and chills swept over me at the realization that Satan and demons were (allegedly) real and in our world.

Chills are caused by our nervous system responding to our primitive fight-or-flight instinct. The fear part of that fits in with what I wrote above. But musical and artistic chills aren’t scary, of course. What happens is your mind is jarred by something familiar yet unfamiliar, the fight-or-flight effects occur, and the brain’s reward structure kicks in, releasing dopamine that enhances the pleasurable emotions you’re already experiencing from the beautiful, moving melodies, prose, art, etc. My personal, half-baked theory on why the demonic possession story gave me chills was that it mixed fear with a sense of pleasure derived from wonder—from trying to comprehend an entity that’s beyond comprehension. In other words, the flip side of religious ecstasy.

(I plan to do a future blog post on why we enjoy being scared by movies and books.)

Like all writers, my wish is that my books could be entertaining and riveting. But I also long to, at least once in a while, bring chills to the reader. I think that’s the reason I gravitated to writing thrillers and horror. Because if I try and fail to cause chills through beautiful, moving prose, maybe I can do it with sublime terror. Maybe, just maybe, I can cause some goosebumps in you someday. Then my work on this earth will be complete!

It gives me chills just thinking about it.

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