Why We Like Being Scared
by Erika Zink, NBC-HWC
Do you enjoy watching horror movies, reading horror fiction or wandering through a haunted house? There are many ideas about why people like to go out of their way to experience a heart-pumping scare. Ultimately, the reasons are complex and nuanced and can be quite different for each person.
Digging deeper, theories range from enjoying these experiences because they help us process our emotions or past experiences to feeding our curiosity or even the high we get from “surviving” the encounter.
Curiosity and Art Appreciation
It is believed there is a cognitive aspect to the desire to do fear-inducing experiences. It could be a curiosity to see if you can solve the mystery before the end or how the characters will react to the situation. Would you do better or worse? Essentially, our curiosity about what will happen next may be what drives us. Alternatively, you may be curious about how you respond. Can you escape the haunted corn maze before everyone else?
Challenging the other side of your brain, another aspect of horror fiction that we find fascinating is the artistic expression involved. We consume horror fiction to enjoy the effort that is put into creating the creatures, the environment, and the craftsmanship involved.
A study from 2019 by Dr. Kerr at the University of Pittsburgh found that participants who completed an extreme haunted house showed an overall reduction in brainwave activity after the experience. This “checked out” or “dazed” sensation was very strongly related to a reduction in post-experience anxiety. In fact, they concluded that doing something scary may help improve overall mood by changing how you process information—making you more grounded in the present moment and less inclined to get caught up in the thoughts in your head. It is believed to these activities activate the sympathetic nervous system in relation to overcoming a personal challenge, much like you get when overcoming other difficult physical achievements.
The fact that we feel safe in these situations because we know the monsters are fictional and no real harm that will befall us allows us to lean into the experience and reset their bar for tolerance of distress. In essence, it created an environment to practice the experience of fear to learn more about ourselves and to remind us of how strong we are.
Like most things, emotions need balance. Without the disgust and fear from these experiences, we cannot get the joy and satisfaction “surviving” them. Some believe our fascination with the macabre is a way to safely express these negative emotions, so we don’t bottle them up inside. Others feel it can be used to process our own fears or past experiences through the metaphors we see on screen.
Watching a fictional character who is evading serial killers or traversing paranormal events allows our brains to rehearse strategies that we could use if found in a similar situation. When we see characters do things that we feel don’t serve them, it allows us to feel that we would be better equipped to handle a similar situation.
When it comes to a commercial haunted house or corn maze, the experience can help you to better understand yourself about what scares you and what does not. This gives you time to examine your emotional reactions to unsettling experiences, allowing you to know how well prepared you may be to handle those emotions in real-life.
Alternatively, rather than enjoying the unpleasant emotions of fear and disgust, it could be we enjoy the experience of being able to express these emotions in a controlled environment so that we can reduce the effect or hold they have on us in the long term. In short, these experiences allow us an outlet for these emotions so that we don’t bottle them up and thus reduce our experiences of other emotions like joy and happiness.
Context Defines the Experience
Going beyond emotions, one theory is emotions alone are not unpleasant. Rather it is the source of that emotion that causes it to be pleasant or unpleasant. This is known as the evaluative theory of emotions and goes on to explain that a person will find a situation unpleasant if they find it not only threatening but also triggers fear.
Alternatively, if you find yourself in a situation that causes you fear, but there is no risk of harm—as in the case of a haunted house—you may find the experience to be pleasant. Therefore, it is the context around the emotion that makes what might otherwise be seen as an unpleasant or negative experience and instead makes it enjoyable.
Fear is Not for Everyone
Not everyone likes horror fiction. For these people, as we mentioned before, it may be the context around their experience that took it from pleasant to unpleasant, or they may struggle with managing situations with a lot of stimulation.
Some people may be wired to enjoy high levels of physiological arousal. These are the people that will go out of their way to get an adrenaline rush from riding a roller coaster, skydiving, or watching scary movies. Others may not enjoy these sensations of overstimulation. They may be more sensitive to things like temperature changes, the sound of people eating, or a tag on their clothes. These people are likely to not enjoy the effect of watching a scary movie.
It could also be all about how you feel after, or the excitation transfer process, according to Dr. Glenn Sparks. While watching scary movies, people’s heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration will increase. Afterwards, this arousal will linger and cause any experiences you have after to be intensified. A great time out with friends will make for a more enjoyable time and memory. On the other hand, a bad date or a car accident on the way home will seem worse, making for an unpleasant evening.
Our brains are wired to pay attention to stimuli in our environment. Danger can disrupt our routines, and curiosity about change can be important to our survival. We can be attracted to things we don’t normally see every day, whether it’s gawking at a horrible accident on the side of the road or impressive special effects in a horror movie. However, intensely negative emotions can trump this attraction for novelty, so if we get too scared during a movie, we won’t enjoy it. This can also lead to what is known as lingering emotional fallout, or a desire to not want to do an activity that we saw in a scary movie—like not wanting to swim in the ocean after watching Jaws—or if the movie too closely relates to a past trauma.
Whether you are a horror fiction afficionado or avoider, you can see that not only are you normal, but you are unique. Stay weird and stay true to yourself during this spooky season.