Sweaty hands, heart racing, stomach dancing in our belly. The adrenaline flows through our bodies. We crave symptoms that would usually let us petrified even though our entire body was screaming “RUN”. But why? Why would we want to simulate a terrifying experience, on purpose? Why would we want to make our bodies believe that our lives are in danger and it seems we are going to die? Well, just for fun.
Despite the existence of several theories related to the motivation behind why people like to watch horror movies, none of them fully explain this phenomenon. However, according to a 2004 paper in the Journal of Media Psychology, most of them involve at least one of these three factors: tension, relevance, and unrealism. Maybe you like it because of the unknown, maybe you like it because you can relate to something in the movie, or maybe you just like it because you know it’s not real.
Our physical reactions to horror movies play a significant part in society’s love for the tension generated by the mystery and fear. “What happens for most people is that you have an arousal of your sympathetic nervous system and an activation [to produce] adrenaline”, explained Advanced Placement Psychology teacher Heidi Mathers to Zephyrus. When this happens, our brain goes into fight-or-flight mode. Our heart rate and our respiration increase, our muscles tense and we can even scream or jump. But, if our bodies usually react the same way, why do some people love horror movies while others think they are a nightmare? This can be attributed to the Emotion Theory.
“The Emotion Theory states that our interpretation of these same physiological cues can be different depending on the individual,” said Mathers. This means that while horror movie enthusiasts feel a thrill triggered by fear (sensation seekers), other people may feel distressed. According to the online newspaper on science Sciencenorway.no, personality tests reveal that easily bored individuals often score higher than others on this sensation-seeking trait and several studies can relate a high score in this characteristic with an increased liking of horror movies.
For Malcolm Turvey, director of the Film and Media Studies program at Tufts University, this thrill may be especially pleasurable in a context where there’s no real threat. “What’s special about consuming horror is you can feel certain strong feelings without suffering the consequences, which allows you to enjoy the sensation,” said Turvey to TuftsNow about the genre that “appeals to our basest instincts”. The specialist in horror movies presents the “beast within” as the most popular theory behind the genre’s popularity. “It argues that an unconscious, repressed part of every human is actually savage; that the veneer of civility is very thin, and beneath that is essentially a monster,” explains. “According to this idea, although we consciously disapprove of what the monster is doing, deep down part of us enjoys seeing the murder and mayhem the monster unleashes—because if we could, we would do that.”
The psychologist Elizabeth Kaplunovalso considers that horror movies were created to feed “the animalistic side of human beings” and believes the way we live today influences our need for frightening stimuli. “In the developed world, people live in such safe and cushioned environments, that a lot of them are very unlikely to experience strong emotions like fear or emotional pain in their daily lives. However, people are evolutionarily programmed to deal with scary stimuli, such as predators, all the time”, wrote Kaplunov on Psychreg blog.
Yet, in this case, people can feel happy and relaxed after the adrenaline rush since they are in a safe environment and just enjoy the euphoria-inducing brain chemicals like endorphins and dopamine. Kaplunov even compares watching a scary movie with dealing with a simulated life threat and feel the simulated reward afterwards. “You feel like, ‘I dealt with something that was outside of my comfort zone, and I conquered it”, says Jeffrey Gardere, a clinical psychologist to Health. “That gives you confidence”. The same article points out that horror movies help us prepare for the worst by showing how life-threatening situations might play out and making us feel more prepared for actual danger. Also, horror may teach us to cope. “I think people who watch them a lot are learning how to deal with uncertainty and suspense and anxiety,” says Coltan Scrivner,a candidate in the Department of Comparative Human Development at The University of Chicago to Health. Scrivner recently co-authored a study that shows horror fans are more resilient and less psychologically anxious about the covid-19 pandemic than non-horror fans.
Horror movies also can be therapeutical due to the control we have over the experience – you can close your eyes, cover your ears, or just turn off the television if you want to. “I imagine that people who suffer from deeply unwelcome anxiety attacks may feel some comfort in voluntarily seeking out anxiety in controllable doses. It’s like facing your enemy, but in a context where you have the upper hand”, says Mathias Clasen, a Denmark-based researcher who studies horror entertainment, to Elemental.
Laura Turner is an example of this therapeutical power. “It Follows and The Thing provided a really great distraction from the reality of having just had a miscarriage; I could totally forget about my anxiety for a while because the movies were just so completely immersive”, said Turner to Elemental. The movies also helped her to be physically prepared. “I slow my breath down, especially during the scary parts, almost practicing a sort of meditation so I can be prepared for whatever jump scare is about to hit”.
The psychologist Kaplunov agrees that horror movies “could suggest to a viewer, that some of our fears are not as real as we imagine them to be, or that threats in real life are not always as hard to deal with as we first thought”. “It makes us desensitised to scary things in our reality, teaches people to be less scared”, concludes.Most specialists also agree that watching horror movies together develops ties between people, making them bond due to the scary and unreal experience they had just dealt with.
Whatever the theory, the fact is horror movies are a huge success. But, even though they can be funny, therapeutical, or even relatable for our “beast within”, this movie genre can also have bad consequences for our mental health if we force ourselves to enjoy it. If watching a scary movie gives you insomnias or makes you scared of being alone, maybe you should consider changing for a more light type of entertainment. Everybody deals with things differently and there is no shame in that.