Whether you love horror films or prefer to be scared in person at a haunted house, one thing is certain: people love to be spooked. But why do we love being scared so much?
You may be tempted to chalk up our fear-obsession to adrenaline, but there is psychology behind the drive to feel scared from horror films, haunted houses, and campfire tales from the Black Lagoon.
There is even a psychological paradox to horror, in which philosopher Berys Gaut describes the 3 aspects of the paradox:
(1) Some people enjoy horror fiction.
(2) Horror fiction often produces fear and disgust in the audience.
(3) Fear and disgust are intrinsically unpleasant emotions.
So why do we love (and hate) to be scared so much? And what is it that makes things so scary? Here are five reasons that we are driven to search for fear, and why horror films and haunted houses scare us so much in the first place:
- The drive to “push the envelope” results in self-satisfaction. We often look for ways to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones, and nowhere is this more evident than in trying to find fear. When you push yourself outside of your comfort zone, especially in a situation which induces a severe anxiety or panic response, and are able to overcome it, the brain is flooded with feel-good hormones. This leads to self-satisfaction, which is part of the thrill, according to Psychology Today.
- Fear is a mental exercise. Part of what makes something scary is when it is almost familiar, but not quite. This is all part of pattern recognition which starts in our brains when we are a baby — we look for patterns and our brains try to find changes in the patterns. For example, think of the horror films starring a monster who looks almost human, but not quite. Your brain tries to figure out what it is about the monster that makes them scary, which is actually an intense psychological exercise. People who enjoy the psychological exercise of wondering why something is scary are often looking to be scared more frequently than those who do not enjoy this exercise.
- Simulated situations help people feel empowered by thinking of how they could handle the situation better. Have you ever noticed that characters in scary movies almost always do the wrong thing? The screaming teenager runs into the basement, the scared mother asks the child to show her where the monster lives, the man runs toward the scary sound in the woods — sounds familiar, right? The characters in horror films are often intentionally written with poor judgement because it makes the viewer feel psychologically empowered and sure that they would react differently. Additionally, our brains understand that we are not in actual danger when viewing a horror film or even walking through a haunted house, so we mentally feel that we have a safety net while we evaluate how we would respond.
- The consumption of horror fiction involves several mental states at once and triggers our adrenaline. Our ability to navigate and overcome an unpleasant experience is an attitudinal pleasure, and put simply: fear makes us feel alive. When we subject ourselves to horror, our attention is more focused, our heart rate elevates, and we are able to live in the moment in a way that we typically would not. When you are feeling fear, you are not running through your to-do list in your head, rather, you are using several mental states at once and turning off your brain to other stressors.
- There is a community surrounding horror. Not only are you surrounded by others who enjoy horror when you visit a haunted house or go see a scary movie, but you are bonded to the person or people with whom you are being scared. Having a shared experience of fear can bond people because it is a universal experience. Not everyone experiences fear the same way, but when you are in a state of controlled fear you can comfortably explore what it is like to be afraid together. This shared experience also releases the feel-good hormones in your brain, leading you to seek it out more.
The next time you attend a scary movie or Halloween event, observe how you react. Chances are, you will find that there is far more to being scared than what is on the surface.