With Halloween approaching, it’s hard to avoid ghosts, goblins and other spooky decorations. But some people go even further, seeking out horror movies and convoluted haunted houses that are designed to scare the living daylights out of them.
What possesses people to seek out experiences that make them tremble with fear?
Enjoyment likely comes not from the fear itself, experts say, but from the physical and emotional release that follows scary situations.
For some people, the urge to feel fear also represents one manifestation of a sensation-seeking personality drawn to adrenaline-pumping activities like skydiving, rollercoasters or even drugs. Horror may even give people an opportunity to identify with or wage battle against their own psychological monsters.
“Fear is a negative emotion that comes about when people are under siege or threat, and that is not pleasant,” said Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication who studies the media’s effects on people at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
“After researching this as long as I have, I have not seen any empirical evidence that people actually enjoy the emotional experience of fright,” he added. “Instead, I see evidence that people are enjoying other things that go along with this experience.”
The desire to be afraid is far from universal. In surveys, Sparks said, only about a third of people said they seek out scary entertainment. A third actively avoid it. And the rest occupy a middle ground where they can accept some fear if it’s not too extreme and if the overall nature of the experience is interesting to them.
Even for people who like horror movies, the habit causes negative emotions that often linger. Because distressing feelings are stored in the brain’s amygdala, which is particularly resistant to letting go, the scariest films can continue to spook people for a long time.
After seeing the movie Jaws for the first time, for example, many people refused to swim in the ocean. After watching Psycho, a lot of viewers couldn’t take a shower without peeking behind the curtain first. And The Exorcist scared people so badly that they had to be hospitalized for psychological fall-out.
And yet, dedicated horror fans keep coming back for more. One reason is a phenomenon known as “excitation transfer.” When scared, the body undergoes spikes in heart rate, breathing rate and muscle tension, among other involuntary responses. And that kind of arousal is not necessarily pleasant.
But when the extreme sense of excitement wears off, it is replaced by an equally intense sense of relief, and those positive feelings are stronger than they would have been otherwise. A sense of mastery can also come from enduring a frightening situation and emerging triumphant.
“People may remember a haunted house at Halloween or a scary movie and they think, ‘I really felt good after that,’” Sparks said. “They’re remembering the intense positive emotions they had afterwards, not necessarily that the enjoyed the feeling of fear at all. There was something about the experience they remember as good, even though they know there were negative things, too.”
Horror also incorporates an element of sex. In a 1986 experiment, teenage boys and girls watched scary videos in pairs. Unbeknownst to the other person, one member of the pair was instructed to follow a certain script that either conformed to or rejected stereotypical gender roles.
When girls acted scared, the boys they were with found them more attractive than if they talked about how lame the movie was, the researchers found. Likewise, girls were more attracted to boys who acted brave and unfazed by frightening imagery.”
“Horror movies are very huggable movies because people sit there and grab each other,” said Stuart Fischcoff, a retired psychologist and screenwriter who is now the senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology. “Boys can role-play being a man and girls can role-play being a damsel in distress.”
There are other theories, too, for why people seek out situations that scare them. One is that we can project our own sense of evil onto whatever bad guys are represented in fearsome entertainment, which helps us enjoy watching as they are defeated.
Another is the idea that intense experiences remove us from our normal lives, offering something unusual to look at that can be hard to resist, much like a car wreck on the side of the road.
Whatever the underlying reasons, there’s not usually any harm in pursuing good, scary fun on Halloween, Sparks said — as long as that’s what you want to do.
Despite some research showing that scary films and video games can affect aggressive and hostile behaviors, the vast majority of people won’t do terrible things after viewing an occasional horror flick or visiting a seasonal haunted house.
“I think people should follow their instincts on this,” Sparks said. “People should feel perfectly OK saying, ‘You know what, I don’t really enjoy this, and I’m not going to partake.’”
“On the other hand, if people find it enjoyable and want to do it, that’s perfectly fine, too,” he added.