- Selin Eriz (writer); Dina Kammourie (editor)
The Psychology Behind Scary Entertainment
Believe it or not, some people actually derive pleasure from watching horror films. Some of us get a kick out of these terrifying experiences. These can range from watching popular horror movies such as “The Conjuring” and “The Exorcist”, to going out to haunted theme parks, or even reading disturbing Steven King novels. However, the feeling of fear on the other hand, is not exactly a favorable emotion. So, we may ask ourselves, what is it about horror that draws us in? Also, why are some of us prepared to spend our money voluntarily and be scared while others will go to great lengths to avoid it altogether?
Humans consume horror for a variety of reasons, one of which is to be stimulated. Exposure to horrific behaviors, or simply the expectation of them, can stimulate us both mentally and physically. The first being negatively (i.e. in the form of fear or anxiety) or positively (i.e. in the form of enthusiasm). For example, by watching a horror movie, it engages both forms of stimulation, with the climax being experienced at the most frightening moment of the film. When we observe or experience horror, there are chemical changes that occur within our bodies as well. For example, fear can trigger the release of adrenaline, which results in heightened feelings of arousal and a surge of energy (Mezzacappa, 1999). Another reason we seek horror is to broaden our horizons. For example, apocalyptic horror films let us immerse ourselves in alternate worlds, such as zombie outbreaks or alien invasions. This leaves us feeling braver and opens up our eyes to more surreal experiences. In addition, visiting a notoriously haunted house can help contribute to our sense of accomplishment (Kienan, A., 2011). Finally, horror entertainment may be a safe way for us to quench our curiosity about the darker sides of the human psyche. After all, the chances of us meeting Hannibal Lecter or roaming around the streets during “The Purge” in real life are impossible. Many of us are captivated by what our species is capable of doing, since we are innately curious. This can be by watching movies in which actors are forced to confront their worst selves to engage and understand the darkest aspects of the human experience (Andrade, E., 2007).
Moreover, there are significant individual differences in the degree in which we are able to engage with horror. According to research, those who are higher on the sensation-seeking trait (i.e. a larger craving for thrills and excitement) are more likely to actively seek out and enjoy horror-related activities (Zuckerman, M., 2007). On the other hand, those with lower levels of sensation-seeking may find those encounters unpleasant and try to avoid them at all costs. Similarly, openness to experience (i.e. the need to engage in imaginative activities) serves as a predictor of horror consumption. Being higher on the openness to experience trait is positively correlated with an increased liking for horror (Clasen, M., 2020). Moreover, individual differences in empathy are also linked to a preference for horror. Those who are less empathetic may find horror more enjoyable. This is because people with high levels of empathy tend to feel more distressed and are negatively impacted by witnessing the disturbing situations that others experience. This can be by watching films depicting victims being abducted and tormented by a malicious serial killer (Hoffner, C. A., 2005).
Putting aside the thrill of watching scary movies, there may be a few hidden benefits! According to research, watching horror films with a date can help create a romantic atmosphere. Co-experiencing horror and being scared together can heighten your attraction to the other person. In addition, consuming horror with friends and family can be an excellent group bonding experience. According to research, such a connection is associated with oxytocin, which is released when we encounter stressful situations. This hormone helps promote feelings of intimacy and affiliation among group members. While we tend to be highly stimulated during a terrifying experience, a sensation of relief tends to follow. This can trigger the release of endorphins in our brain, which can help calm and soothe us.
Overall, by understanding the psychological underpinnings of horror consumption it enables us to develop a newfound appreciation for the genre. At the very least, we should prepare our psychological “protective frame” before immersing ourselves in horror.
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Clasen, M., Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, J., & Johnson, J. A. (2020). Horror, personality, and threat simulation: A survey on the psychology of scary media. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 14(3), 213–230. https://doi.org/10.1037/ebs0000152
Hoffner, C. A., & Levine, K. J. (2005). Enjoyment of Mediated Fright and Violence: A Meta-Analysis. Media Psychology, 7(2), 207–237. https://doi.org/10.1207/s1532785xmep0702_5
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Cover photo credits: GETTY IMAGES