Most horror movie fans recall unforgettable scenes of spine-chilling thrill with glee. Whether it’s the creepy twins beckoning Danny in The Shining or the dark shadow approaching the shower curtain in Psycho, everyone has a favorite, most terrifying cinematic moment. Which if you think about it, is kind of odd. Favorite and terrifying should not go together. Yet from children possessed by the devil to deranged writers to chainsaw-wielding killers, our appetite for horror seems endless. Clearly, many people love being scared.
Scientists have spent a lot of time figuring out why. Some propose that horror films allow enjoyment of the illicit and taboo, dark feelings that society shuns. Researchers who focus on the body’s circuitry submit that it’s the thrill of a visceral rush. Now experiments from various fields offer a more complete picture of why some delight in being scared silly.
Our brains actually have to decide to be what we call “scared.” Experiencing fear — the heart-clenching, hair-raising goose bumps — is a raw and evolutionarily ancient response to a perceived threat. There’s nothing uniquely human about it; birds do it, bacteria do it, as do nerve cells growing in a Petri dish. We register something as threatening — the sound of a twig snapping behind us in a dark wood, a late night knock on the door — and the body experiences a rush of arousal. This intense physical experience is fed back to the brain. And that’s when we truly are afraid.
“This relatively meaningless feedback from the body, when contextualized in a certain way, is interpreted and that’s what you end up feeling and believing,” says Joseph LeDoux of the Center for Neural Science at New York University. In fact, that heart-thumping arousal experienced in negative situations is nearly indistinguishable from that experienced in positive situations. In a classic experiment done at Columbia University in the 1960s, scientists Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer gave students a shot of adrenaline and then sent them into rooms where an actor expressed either really positive or really negative words and emotions. The researchers found that the students adopted the mood of the room.
In a truly dangerous situation, the brain interprets that automatic visceral response as “be very afraid.” But in a movie theater, there’s dissonance. Viewers know that they are at the movies. “Your brain is now able to enjoy that arousal and excitement rather than experience it as something threatening because you know the situation you’re in, you’ve contextualized it,” LeDoux says. “You can enjoy the rush, rather than fight for your life.”
Of course, not everyone can enjoy the rush. Some people hate scary movies. Eduardo Andrade, an expert in consumer behavior and decision making at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of them. A few years ago Andrade and Joel Cohen of the University of Florida in Gainesville explored the notion that people who don’t like watching horror flicks can’t enjoy them because they can’t quite believe that there’s no real threat. This was the inverse of an idea put forth in the early 1980s by psychologist Michael Apter, who posited that to enjoy the thrill of extreme sports such as skydiving, participants have to convince themselves that they are not in danger. Apter called this psychological safety net a “protective frame.” This frame can manifest as self-confidence in your ability to deal with danger, or strategies such as detaching yourself from the danger.
After establishing that some of their study participants enjoyed scary movies and others decidedly did not, Andrade and Cohen made both groups watch clips from the vampire flick Salem’s Lot. But the researchers had the students watch biographies of the actors before seeing the films and, while the movie was rolling, images of the actors as regular people were displayed alongside it. The students who felt only negative feelings when watching the movies without the protective frame now also reported pleasure while watching the films, just like their horror flick fan counterparts.
These studies may help explain the pleasure of fear (including why I often will shut a scary book just to bask a moment in the dread) but they don’t explain why people seek that rush to begin with.
More than 60 years ago, master of the genre Alfred Hitchcock offered his views on the subject: “I aim to provide the public with beneficial shocks. Civilization has become so protective that we’re no longer able to get our goose bumps instinctively. The only way to remove the numbness and revive our moral equilibrium is to use artificial means to bring about the shock. The best way to achieve that, it seems to me, is through a movie.”