The Science Behind the Scare: The Psychology of Horror

Horror films have been growing increasingly popular. In recent years, many of these teeth-chattering movies have gained mainstream and critically acclaimed statuses. Contemporary horror films such as Midsommar, Us, The Invisible Man, and A Quiet Place have become familiar titles among hardcore horror fanatics and scaredy-cats alike. Since 2019, the horror genre’s market share of the box office has more than doubled. Reaching its peak in 2021, horror movies now make up an impressive 18.6% of the total market share across all genres (The Numbers, n.d.).

BOTTOM LINE UP FRONT!

  • For non-horror cinema fanatics, it may seem odd that some people find pleasure in these spine-chilling movies. However, there is a scientific explanation behind this seemingly strange behavior.
  • The excitation transfer theory explains that the intense fear brought about by tension in a horror film can also intensify the feeling of relief once the suspense fades. 
  • These movies also trigger the release of endorphins, the feel-good chemical released by the brain. They also trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, which brings an enjoyable rush of oxygen to the brain. 
  • Some people just naturally enjoy horror more than others. Sensation seekers tend to enjoy the thrill of scary movies, while more empathetic people are expected to enjoy these films less.
  • Horror movies can have anxiety-relieving effects. They can help give people a sense of control over their anxieties and teach people how to deal with and overcome their stress.

After the real-life horrors brought by the pandemic the past year, it may seem odd that more people are turning to horror movies as a form of escapism now more than ever. However, this willingness to spook oneself out makes perfect sense when viewed through the lens of science. Taking a peek into human psychology and physiology, we discover explanations for why some people find pleasure in the seemingly unpleasant elements of horror movies. This includes the terror, gore, and thrill found in being scared.

The Brain and Body Behind the Scenes

American psychologist Dolf Zillman’s excitation transfer theory states that arousal provoked by a previous stimulus can intensify emotional responses triggered by entirely different stimuli. Residual arousal from an initial stimulus can “transfer” to successive stimuli, amplifying the emotional response from these subsequent stimuli (Bunce et al., 1993).

This transfer theory may explain why some people enjoy getting scared. It explains that the intense fear and nervousness brought about by tension in a horror film can also intensify the feeling of relief once the suspense fades. 

For example, when watching a jump scare scene, as the unsuspecting victim slowly traverses the dark, deserted hallway, the viewer’s fear intensifies during these moments leading to the jump scare. However, once the ax-wielding killer suddenly appears in-frame ready to strike their prey, this intense fear turns into shock. As the shock of the fright wears off, the residual arousal from the previous intense feeling of fear remains. This intensity is transferred to the sense of relief the viewer feels after watching the jump scare, flooding the viewer with heightened feelings of ease and pleasure. 

Hormones also play a role in the enjoyment of fear. According to sociologist Margee Kerr, horror movies stimulate the body’s fight-or-flight response, triggered when the body perceives a threat. This involuntary response causes the body to release adrenaline which causes physiological effects such as increased heart rate, respiration, and sweating. Other chemicals such as endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers known to also increase feelings of pleasure, are also released by the body (McArdle, 2020).

In the event of a real threat, the effects of these chemicals are helpful for survival. The increased heart rate brought by a rush of adrenaline causes more blood to be pumped into muscles. Meanwhile, increased breathing allows more oxygen to be let into the bloodstream. This allows more oxygen to reach the brain, improving one’s cognitive performance and sharpening one’s senses to aid in their survival. 

If an ax-wielding killer were chasing you in real life, your fight-or-flight response would come in handy, and you would definitely not enjoy the scary experience. However, if you were to watch this same frightening scene play out in a horror movie, your fight-or-flight response would also be activated. Yet, assuming you enjoy horror movies, you would find thrill in the scare. There is a reasoning behind this difference. In the latter case, you are in the comfort of knowing that the perceived threat is not a real one—it’s just a movie. You know you are not actually in danger and that you are in a safe environment. So, you can enjoy the increased oxygen in your brain as well as the feel-good effects of chemicals like endorphins brought by the triggered fight-or-flight response (Concordia St. Paul, n.d.).

Why Some People Enjoy Horror More Than Others

When it comes to people’s opinions on horror movies, there exists a spectrum. On one end, you have the horror fanatics who crave the goosebumps and the chills up their spines accompanied by all types of horror movies. On the other end, you have people like me who avoid the goosebump-inducing and spine-chilling horror at all costs. 

According to Martin (2019), one factor that could explain this divide is sensation seeking. High sensation-seeking individuals are expected to enjoy horror films more. Sensation seekers crave the thrill from new and intense experiences even if it means taking on risks to satisfy their desire. These thrilling experiences can be the fear-induced sweating, heavy breathing, and increased heart rates brought by horror movies. High sensation-seekers interpret these seemingly unpleasant physiological reactions as thrilling, positive sensations. 

On the other hand, people who are more empathetic tend to enjoy horror movies less. While the sensation seekers enjoy the high arousal brought by the adrenaline rush triggered by horror movies, empathetic individuals find the high arousal unpleasant. People who are more empathetic tend to more imaginatively experience for themselves the suffering of a horror film victim, making their viewing experience uncomfortable and unappealing. 

Positive Effects of Fear

Horror films can help relieve anxiety. Yes, you read that right. Watching the anxiety-inducing blood, violence, and gore of horror movies can play a role in anxiety management. It may seem counterproductive, especially considering how the physiological reactions to a horror movie can resemble the symptoms of a panic attack. These reactions include increased heart rate, heavy breathing, and sweating, among others. However, there is psychological reasoning behind this odd claim, and it has something to do with control.

Those who suffer from anxiety often feel as if there is a lack of control over either their source of anxiety or their reactions to their anxiety. Horror films can provide this control. They redirect someone’s anxiety about real-life situations to a fictional terror behind a screen. In this case, the person has a sense of control over their anxiety. They choose to be anxious by deciding to willingly spook themself out by watching a scary movie. 

Horror films can also provide an outlet for the expression of emotions, acting as a possible healthy coping tool. Watching fictional horror movies exposes you to stressful and frightening situations without actual threat to danger. While being exposed to these fictional situations, you can practice and learn emotional and behavioral strategies. These strategies allow you to cope with the anxiety brought by nerve-wracking scenes in horror films (Scrivner, 2021). These coping strategies can also be used when facing the horrors of the real world, allowing us to properly deal with our real-life anxieties.

The effect of horror films in this sense is similar to the effect of what is known as exposure therapy. When watching a horror movie, one willingly subjects themself to two hours of stressful tension. This is similar to exposure therapy where one also forces themself to experience stress by willingly facing their fears. Both can be considered controlled fear experiences designed to help someone overcome their stress and anxieties through dealing with them head-on (Johnson, 2020).

A recent study by Scrivner et al. (2021) even found that horror fans are more psychologically resilient to the real-life horrors brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. The coping quality of horror films can also explain the increasing popularity of horror films despite the already stressful times we have been through since 2020.

The remaining months of 2021 have seen and continue to expect the release of even more horror films. Some of these films include Last Night in Soho featuring Anya Taylor-Joy and Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City produced by Sony Pictures. So, if you’re feeling anxious about the horrors of the real world, you can always prepare a bowl of popcorn, snuggle up in your favorite pajamas, and choose from the wide selection of horror films.

WRITTEN BY DANIELLE ANDREA SANTOS
EDITED BY HANNAH MORIAH TAYZON
GRAPHICS BY ALIE SANTANA

REFERENCES

Bunce, S. C., Larsen, R. J., Cruz, M. (1993). Individual differences in the excitation transfer effect. Person. individ. Diff., 15(5), 507-514. https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/30488/0000116.pdf?sequence=1.

Concordia St. Paul. (n.d.). The psychology of fear: Exploring the science behind horror entertainment. https://b.online.csp.edu/resources/article/pyschology-of-fear/.

Johnson, N. (2020, October 30). How horror movies can help people overcome real-life trauma. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/how-horror-movies-can-help-overcome-trauma-and-relieve-stress

Kerr, M. (2015). Scream: Chilling adventures in the science of fear. PublicAffairs.

Martin, G. H. (2019). (Why) Do you like scary movies? A review of the empirical research on psychological responses to horror films. Front Psychol.I, 10, 2298. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02298

McArdle, L. (2020, October 13). This is your brain on horror movies. https://www.everydayhealth.com/emotional-health/this-is-your-brain-on-horror-movies/

Scrivner, C. (2021, January 13). Why horror films are more popular than ever. https://nautil.us/issue/95/escape/why-horror-films-are-more-popular-than-ever.

Scrivner, C., Johnson, J. A., Kjelgaard-Christiansen, J., Clasen, M. (2021). Pandemic practice: Horror fans and morbidly curious individuals are more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic. Personality and Individual Differences, 168, 110397. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110397

Tamborini, R., Stiff, J., Heidel, C. (1990). Reacting to graphic horror: A mode of empathy and emotional behavior. Communications Research, 17(5), 616-640. https://doi.org/10.1177/009365090017005003

The Numbers. (n.d.). Box office history for horror. https://www.the-numbers.com/market/genre/Horror

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s