Many of us willingly seek out the fear and thrill of a scary movie, despite knowing nightmares will plague us for weeks to come.
According to Dr. Kerr, a “scare specialist” at ScareHouse, Pittsburgh, the answer lies in neuroscience. Our brains are programmed to have a “fight or flight” response to a frightening situation, which includes the release of dopamine, a chemical known for triggering pleasure and motivation. For some, the release of dopamine can go unchecked, leading to a natural inclination towards risky situations. This finding went some way toward confirming my initial inference; some people are masochistic, at least to a degree, even if that is driven through chemicals over which they have no control.
Further fact-finding gave even more credit to this deduction. People have historically placed themselves in situations of fear willfully: cliff-diving, sledding down steep hills, ghost stories around campfires, amusement parks. Roller coasters might seem like 20th century inventions, but archaic versions of the thrill ride existed in 17th-century Russia: ice slides, where riders on toboggans would speed down steep hills. But this conclusion still left much unanswered; if many people do enjoy fear, why are they apprehensive of other frightful situations, such as being stuck in an elevator?
This led me to more research into my second hypothesis that the kind of fear humans seek must be different from the kind we avoid. According to an Independent article called “Halloween and Horror Films: Why Do We Enjoy Being Scared?,” the differences in our reactions to fear lie in human psychology. The author claims that fear can only be pleasurable if the person experiencing it feels safe. This concept also explains why people go to extreme lengths to establish a sense of security before sitting down to watch a horror movie: drawing the blinds, locking the door, and more. The same principle applies to the haunted house attraction at an amusement park. When you see a looming witch or hear a piercing scream in the house, your instinctual response is, “It’s just a ride, I’m safe.” Knowing the parameters and bounds of the experience can go a long way in establishing trust and security in the participant.
The underlying assumption here is that people want to have some sort of control over the fear they experience, and creating this control enables them to gain pleasure or thrill from the scary situation they may be in. Deriving pleasure from fear hinges upon the foundation of security, and without this underlying sense, a situation can quickly become unpleasant. Being stuck in an elevator or being the victim of a burglary creates a fear which robs you of the feeling of security: an experience everyone hopes to avoid.
According to an NBC News article, “A Fondness for Fear: Why Do We Like to be Scared?,” fear can also become pleasurable because of the escape it provides. The author claims that the thrill of a roller coaster or horror film is amplified by the falseness of the threat that exists, as opposed to other, “real-world” threats. A person watching a terrifying movie is always aware that the demon or evil spirit exists only in the television screen, and this allows them to enjoy the experience, knowing that they will face no harm from the characters in the movie. When they are experiencing such a fear, they can momentarily escape other, tangible threats and problems, such as those of unpaid bills or mortgages.
The author takes this claim further, suggesting that finishing the film or completing the ride serves as a challenge to be overcome. Thus, even individuals who do not find the fear of watching a horror film enjoyable may gain pleasure from the experience because it serves as a confidence-booster. This is more of a subconscious reason that people seek out fear and impacts considerably fewer people than the immediate thrill of being in a frightful situation.
However, not all of us mark our calendars for the latest horror movie or Halloween. In fact, many detest all kinds of fear, regardless of whether they can control the circumstances in which it is experienced or the escape that fear can provide from real world problems. According to Dr. Glenn Sparks, a professor and associate head of the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, one reason for this is that these individuals “suffer lingering emotional fallout if something in the environment reminds them of a scene.” Such people avoid watching a movie depicting real-life characters and objects in a scary light, in fear that doing so will permanently transform their view of such characters or objects. It is no surprise that films about killer clowns are a leading cause for many of us to run at the sight of the harmless joker hired at a child’s birthday party.
Therefore, the idea that people, animals that always strive for security and comfort, actively seek out fear may still seem to be a logical fallacy. Yet, as research has shown, the human mind is geared differently for each individual. So if you are one of those people who religiously watch horror movies, do not worry; there is no need to question or deny yourself the guilty pleasure of fear.
Gander, Kashmira. “Halloween and Horror Films: Why Do We Enjoy Being Scared?” The Independent, October 29, 2015. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/halloween-horror-films-movies-scared-a6713446.html.
Manning-Schaffel, Vivian. “A Fondness for Fear: Why Do We Like to Be Scared?” NBC News, October 21, 2017. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/fondness-fear-why-do-we-be-scared-ncna812661.
Ringo, Allegra. “Why Do Some Brains Enjoy Fear?” The Atlantic, October 31, 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/why-do-some-brains-enjoy-fear/280938/.
Tartakovsky, Margarita. “Why Some People Love Horror Movies While Others Hate Them.” PsychCentral, July 8, 2018. https://psychcentral.com/blog/why-some-people-love-horror-movies-while-others-hate-them/.
Fizza Raza is a 15-year-old from Lahore, Pakistan. She spends most of her time contemplating the glass ceiling or the ethics of modern-day capitalism.
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