The Psychology of Scary

Fear. It one of the most primitive and universal emotions that humans experience. It is what keeps us alive, and it drives many of our daily decisions, even ones that we might not be aware of. It makes sense that fear propels us forward, away from the fright, but what exactly draws us to it? What makes us weirdos out there, like you and me, enjoy fear instead of running away from it?

While I am by no means a psychologist, I do have my suspicions as to why some might like, or even crave, the scary. In my world, fear and horror helps me to understand my behavior and motivations. For example, monster movies and clowns do not freak me out. Clowns are just people behind masks, and the likeliness that I’m going to meet a vampire or werewolf in the near future is slim. But, of all weird things, zombies totally scare the crap out of me. Why? Because if I was infected with a zombie virus, I would have no control over the actions I commit, no matter how heinous. At the risk of sounding like a control freak, losing control is somewhat terrifying to me. Yet, I probably would not have come to that realization about myself, at least not very quickly, without terrifying myself with a fair share of zombie movies.

In another sense, fear has been shown to elevate the mood and increase sexual desire. In a study by Dutton and Aron in 1974, the researchers tested male attraction to a female under two conditions. One set of men met the woman on a sturdy bridge, and another group met her on a high, unstable bridge. The female asked the men to tell her stories, and gave them her phone number at the end of the meet. The men on the unstable bridge called the woman more often than those who met her on the stable bridge, and used more sexual scenarios in their storytelling. In this case, fear acted as somewhat of an aphrodisiac. So, maybe instead of bungee jumping, or meeting on high, unstable bridges, horror lovers get their kicks by watching scary movies.

Maybe a little more unpopular than the other two reasons, horror seems to draw people in for the blood and gore. It is universally human to be fascinated with gore and death. We might not like to admit it because it is not something socially acceptable, but horror, especially the film medium, allows us to explore this fascination in a socially acceptable context. An article in Psychology Today mentions a study in which Haidt, McCauley, and Rozin in 1994 conducted a study on disgust. They showed a sample of college students real-life horrifying images, and tested their responses. About 90% of the students turned the videos off before they finished. Yet, many of the same students had no opposition to watching horror movies. Researchers Hoekstra, Harris, & Helmick proposed that this was due to the context. Because we are aware that the context is fictional, we are able to make sense of the actions and distance ourselves from the events. This is a phenomena I have experienced personally. I watch gory horror movies all the time without flinching. But, heaven forbid, I see an animal get run over or watch a YouTube video on a real-life surgery…I’m a mess. It’s all about context, baby.

Finally, an article from Filmmaker IQ mentions that there is an element of justice that is explored in horror movies. The article suggests, pointing to Dispositional Alignment Theory, that we take pleasure when the victims who get killed often “deserve it,” such as sexually promiscuous people (don’t get me started on this – it will be a topic for another time) or generally “bad” people. However, there is another layer of enjoyment when the the villain (hopefully) ends of being defeated in the end. This gives the film a sense of finality and justice, and gives the story a satisfying close. Romance lovers wait for the happily-ever-after at the end of the story, but us splatter lovers, well, we just hope the villain comes to a deserved, bloody and brutal end. To each their own, I guess.

Tell me – why do you think people are drawn to horror? Let me know in the comments below!

(1) Comment

  1. […] fascination with death and the grotesque in a socially-acceptable way (see my article, “The Psychology of Scary,” for more details). In that way, Halloween allows us to do the same thing. We can dress as […]

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