Why You Just Can’t Look Away
Oct. 24, 2022 — Halloween Ends? Yeah, sure. Like that’ll happen.
The market for horror remains robust 44 years after the original Halloween movie premiered. Part of the reason (besides Michael Myers’s charm) is that we humans appear to be hard-wired to enjoy getting scared.
Whatever happens in Halloween Ends, the latest entry in the long-running film series, you’ll leave the theater with a sense of relief and satisfaction. You had fun and survived. It feels good.
And you and most of the rest of the world will do it again and again – go to other movies, play scary video games, listen to true-crime podcasts, read Stephen King books, visit haunted houses. A survey by the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University in Denmark found that 55% of Americans enjoy scary media, and 90% had dipped into the horror world at least once in the past year.
Our penchant for fear dates back millennia. But new research is testing the theory that indulging in morbid curiosity and scary play can help us build psychological resilience, overcome phobias, and deal with genuine scares. So far, the answer is yes.
When you scare yourself on purpose, you’re “learning your limits and learning a bit of self-reliance in the face of feelings of danger or fear or anxiety,” says Coltan Scrivner, PhD, a researcher at the Fear Lab and the author of several papers on horror.
Our fascination extends to real life, however conflicted we may feel. “When we pass by a car accident or see a gruesome photo, our minds are compelled to attend to it and gather information,” Scrivner says. “This is the essence of morbid curiosity.”
Greg Siegle, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, says it makes evolutionary sense. “It behooves us to pay attention to possibly threatening things. We learn very quickly, and we encode them deeply.”
For example: Roadkill reminds us to look both ways before crossing the street.
This field of science seems like a bloody good time. Researchers visit haunted-house attractions and interview visitors. They show scary movies to wired-up viewers and check heart rate, eye movement, brain activity, and other measures of arousal.
Zombies even play a role. In a pilot experiment, Siegle and colleague Margee Kerr, PhD, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh, put actors in costumes and makeup for a virtual-reality film of zombies on a train. Subjects in VR goggles “enter” the train car to find zombies, but at the end, the actors strip away the makeup and everyone has a laugh.
It’s a 21st-century reboot of exposure therapy, the 70-year-old technique in which patients are exposed to something that makes them anxious until they can deal with it. “The problem with exposure therapy is that it’s horrible,” Siegle says. “People drop out rather than be exposed to their fears. What if we made it fun?”
Everyday moviegoers are doing a “home-brewed method” of exposure therapy, Scrivner says. “Morbidly curious horror fans spend time sitting with those feelings in a playful context,” he says. “They have a bit more experience feeling afraid or feeling anxious, and learn how to regulate those feelings.”
The benefits are becoming clear.
You’ll Become More Resilient
Scrivner and others grabbed a chance to indirectly test this theory during the pandemic. It turned out that horror fans showed “greater preparedness for and psychological resilience” about the pandemic, they wrote in a 2021 study. They found that “exposure to frightening fictions” can help people “practice effective coping strategies that can be beneficial in real-world situations.”
Our inborn fondness for play-acted fear and surprise can be seen in peekaboo with a baby, or hide-and-seek and playing tag with young children. “They’re out to get you, or you have to run from them,” Scrivner says. “To a kid, that’s a pretty scary concept.”
Scrivner cites the work of Helen Dodd, PhD, a child psychologist in the U.K. who found that children who engage in risky, thrilling play “tend to have kind of an inoculation against anxiety in adolescence.”
“It’s young kids listening to scary stories, riding their bikes too fast, climbing up too high in trees, teenagers watching horror movies or listening to true crime stories,” says Mathias Clasen, PhD, director of the Fear Lab and author of A Very Nervous Person’s Guide to Horror Movies.
“The idea is that they’ve played with fear, or played with scary instances, played with anxiety, and presumably built some tools for dealing with those feelings,” he says.
You’ll Feel Better
Scary media is fun because it allows people “to engage with difficult feelings like anxiety or fear in a safe and playful setting,” Scrivner says. “You can draw your attention away from your cycle of rumination.” And you’re in control: You can turn the sound down and the lights up, cover your eyes, and know it’ll end in 90 minutes.
Scrivner, Clasen, and others examined three types of horror fans in a 2022 paper. Adrenaline Junkies seek maximum stimulation and feel great during the excitement. White Knucklers tolerate the fear but enjoy learning something about themselves. And Dark Copers get the mood boost and the self-enlightenment.
Some people find horror an excellent head-clearing experience, says Kerr, author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. In her research, people who go through a haunted-house attraction show “a global decrease in brainwave activity.”
That’s a positive thing in this context. Their mood was boosted, they felt more confident, and they were able to “shut down or turn down inner thoughts,” she says. “This gives an idea as to why people like to experience these scary activities.” When our sympathetic nervous system is amped up, and hormones and neurotransmitters surge, it can lead to a euphoria akin to a runner’s high. “Also the feeling of achieving something – ‘We’re still alive!’”
Kerr and Siegle co-authored a paper in the journal Emotion subtitled “Why we like to be scared.” It said the improved mood was especially notable among “tired, bored, or stressed” people.
Siegle points out that it’s hard to tell the difference, physiologically, between “high positive” and “high negative emotion.” (“High-fear faces and *** faces” often look the same, he says.)
“So what if we crave these high-arousal experiences?” says Siegle. “That’s what puts us in a flow state. That’s what makes us giddy. We could get it through some ecstatic positive emotion – like dancing with a partner you love. Or we could get it with a haunted house.”
Or a crime scene photo or a graphic medical show. “Disgust is an emotion that raises arousal,” Siegle says.
People seem to find a personal “sweet spot” for their frightening and morbid experiences: not too scary, not too boring, Scrivner says. (Makers of adaptive video games use research from the Fear Lab to calibrate a game’s fright factor.)
The closer you can get to your sweet spot, the more you’ll get out of the experience, Scrivner says. “You want something that puts you near your limit, so you can test the waters.”
You’ll Get to Know Yourself Better
“Surviving” a haunted house or horror movie helps you become more attuned to your body, the researchers say. Part of that, Clasen says, is improving your “interoception” skills – perceiving and understanding bodily responses like a racing heart or sweaty palms. An anxious person feels that happening and becomes more anxious. Triggering those responses in a safe setting – like on your couch – may help break that cycle.
Scary films indeed are triggering. When scientists showed people horror movies and measured brain activity with functional MRI, their “threat response network” lit up as though they were in danger, a study in Neuroimage showed.
You may even gain insight into your personality. Scrivner has a fun quiz on his site to measure morbid curiosity. The questions cover four domains: the minds of dangerous people, the paranormal, body violation, and violence. You’re asked to rate your level of agreement with such statements as:
1. I am curious about the minds of violent people.
2. I think the supernatural is an interesting topic.
3. If a head transplant was possible, I would want to watch the procedure.
4. If I lived in ancient Rome, I would be interested in attending a gladiatorial fight.
A strong “yes” to all of those, according to Scrivner, means you’ll probably score well above average for morbid curiosity. Statistically, you’re “a little more likely to have elevated levels of traits like openness to experience, rebelliousness, and anxiety.”
That’s right – “Morbidly curious people are somewhat more likely to be higher in anxiety,” Scrivner says. “A core aspect of anxiety is vigilance toward threats. Events or situations that pique our morbid curiosity are often threatening events or situations we can safely explore.”
It’s important to note that that strong agreement “doesn’t mean that there is something pathological or unhealthy about their curiosity.”
Horror fans aren’t sickos, in other words. “There are people who score really high in empathy and in compassion who also love torture *** and slasher movies,” Scrivner says. The movie Hostel, for one grim and graphic example, contains several scenes that focus on the victims’ suffering, not the sadist’s pleasure. “That’s a very powerful tool causing you to empathize with the victim,” he says.
At the very least, Kerr says, a voluntary scary experience can stir self-reflection, feelings of growth and competency, and that can improve our “cognitive flexibility.” That flexibility helps us regulate our emotions and spurs us to engage with other people and new experiences – all of which promote well-being, she says.
And though you’re not likely to face zombies, “Maybe you get better at handling a job interview, or a presentation at your company, or a date,” Clasen says.
That boost in emotion-regulating ability comes up in a 2016 paper in the scholarly journal Preternature (peer-reviewed articles about spooky stuff). The paper, titled “Grotesque Gaming: The Monstrous in Online Worlds,” examined “how players enjoy landscapes of the monstrous and the grotesque in order to engage with and tentatively conquer our inner fears and anxieties.”
“It is our human nature to be attracted to the horrific and obtain pleasure from encountering it, because this is how we gain a partial and temporary victory over ourselves,” the paper said.
“That these games exist shows that we need horror.”