With Halloween approaching, and being slightly traumatized after watching The Walking Dead Season 7 premiere, I find myself asking ‘why do we enjoy being scared?’.
For those of us who are a bit too old for trick or treating, some may be planning on a fright night featuring the latest horror film. But why is it people scare themselves for entertainment?
Maybe it begins as some kind of teen initiation, proving how brave you are to your friends. Or defying parents by watching that film you’re not allowed to. A Nightmare on Elm Street may have haunted me for most of my teenage years but I was hooked.
Whether it’s a scary film, a rollercoaster or base jumping, when our minds are anticipating danger our bodies engage the “fight-or-flight” response. This reaction floods the body with adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, giving us a natural ‘high’. The effects of these hormones, increased heart rate, dilated pupils and rapid breathing, are also the same as when we experience pleasure.
This response was useful back when we lived in caves and were in real mortal danger on an almost daily basis but in the modern world we can exploit it in order to get a thrill. However, the only way we can really enjoy a scary situation is to know we’re in a safe environment. If the brain knows there’s no real risk of being harmed we experience the adrenaline rush as enjoyable (We know the ‘walkers’ are just extras with very good special effects and we’re safe on our sofa with doors double locked and a big cushion handy!).
Dopamine is the hormone responsible for feelings of accomplishment and rewards (gamers will be very familiar with this effect). The more you ‘make it through’ that scary film the more the brain rewards itself, which is why it’s involved with addiction.
Research suggests that more men enjoy scary movies. This might be because men are socialized to be brave and enjoy threatening things. A study showed that males liked a horror movie more when they saw it with a female who was scared, and females liked the movie more when they saw it with a male who wasn’t scared. This is probably why the cinema is a favourite choice for a first date and because women are more likely to seek physical closeness when they’re scared, and men can show off their strength and bravery (This is aptly called “the cuddle effect.”).
Of course, not everyone finds a scare enjoyable. “For some people the experience of watching a horror film creates physiological feelings that are always interpreted as “fun”, “a short thrill” and so on. But for others, the feelings in their bodies are interpreted as “terror” or other similarly negative states.”
I used to love watching a good thriller, but whether it’s age or motherhood I find that I don’t enjoy a scare as much as I used to. So this weekend it could be a toss up between Strictly and The Conjuring 2.