Psychology Of Horror Films: Why Do We Like Being Scared?

Gemma Cockrell

Horror films are an essential part of the Hallowe’en season, however, with horror being defined as an extremely strong feeling of fear and shock’ – it seems strange that we are so eager to watch something that is made with the purpose and intention to scare us. Fear is often viewed as a negative emotion, so why do we seek fear when watching horror films – is it comforting to us, or do we secretly like being scared? The science of psychology offers answers to these questions, and explains the effects that horror films have on our brains.

The genre of horror is a successful blend of tension, relevance and unrealism. Tension provides suspense, fear, and mystery, keeping the viewer captivated and engaged. Relevance and unrealism juxtapose each other, and they must be balanced for a film to be successful. Relevance allows the viewer to feel a personal connection to the film, but unrealism separates them from what they are watching. This allows the viewer to feel distance from the events that are occurring in the film.

Horror is such a divisive genre – some people love it and some people hate it

Horror films trigger our fight-or-flight response, which comes with an increased release of adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine. Because we watch horror films in a space which is considered safe – our own living rooms, bedrooms or the cinema – the brain is able to evaluate the situation, and process that there is no real threat posed to us, and we are not in real danger. This psychological distance gives us a sense that we are in control. With this in mind, watching the horor films can be thrilling, because we can witness someone else in a fear-provoking situation, without having to worry about our own safety.

10% of the population claim to enjoy the adrenaline rush which comes with the fight-or-flight response. Some people are energised by high fear arousal, such as those who enjoy going on massive rollercoasters, this is because, for them, the thrill and risk is exciting. However, this is not the same for everyone. Some people find horror films extremely upsetting and distressing. This explains why horror is such a divisive genre – some people love it and some people hate it.

Despite knowing that what we are watching is fictional, our heart-rates and breathing-rates still increase – our bodies still react in the same way as they would if it was real

This was studied by psychologists Cynthia Hoffner and Kenneth Levine, who wanted to determine the relationship between horror films and viewer enjoyment. They found support for a theory called excitation transfer. With this, after the physical responses to fear wear off, and we realise we are not in danger, we feel intense relief. This fills our brain with ‘feel-good’ chemicals which make us feel positive. Those who experience an emotional response to horror therefore also experience more enjoyment when the threats are resolved. Hoffner and Levine have also found support for another hypothesis called individual empathy. This means that people who are less empathetic enjoy the horror genre more, because those with high empathy hate to see the characters in the film suffer.

Other studies have found that people who enjoy horror are more likely to be males, or those who are sensation-seeking, and have above-average aggression. According to sociologist Margee Kerr, those who are more sensation-seeking gravitate towards horror films because of how they interpret their body’s reaction to stressful situations. For sensation-seeking people, horror films will make them feel alive, but for others, they will make them panic and feel anxious. Despite knowing that what we are watching is fictional, our heart-rates and breathing-rates still increase – our bodies still react in the same way as they would if it was real.

The psychology behind horror films therefore clearly suggests that horror films are something you either loathe or enjoy. It all depends on individual differences, and how your body responds to fear-induced situations. There is no better time to watch horror films than October, so if you do end up watching one this Hallowe’en, maybe now you will think more deeply about why you are enjoying it – or why you are hiding behind the sofa!

Gemma Cockrell

Featured image courtesy of dierk schaefer via  Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article image courtesy of Josh Riemer via Unsplash. Image use license found here. No changes made to this image.

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