A few years ago, I gave a short talk on the Psychology of Fear & Suspense in Film, which was an enjoyable task that married my passions for psychology and film. Given our approach up to Halloween, I thought it might be interesting to tailor a post based on that talk and try to help get us both into the spirit of Halloween (pun intended) and to critically think about why we willingly put ourselves through fear and suspense, as well as why we take such pleasure from it.
Think of it: a pounding heartbeat… heavy breathing... a cold sweat... butterflies in your stomach…These don’t sound like particularly nice experiences, but we endure them, when we feel fear. But why do so many people like to be scared — in other words, to feel fear?
To better understand the question, it’s important to first consider what is meant by fear. Fear refers to an emotion or feeling induced by perceived danger or threat of danger, which yields a physiological change that, subsequently, evokes a behavioral response (e.g. fight, flight, or freeze). Again, nothing about this description implies fun or pleasure, but it does lead us towards a number of possible explanations for this apparent contradiction:
1. The Safety Net
Consistent with the description above, when we get scared, our bodies will go into fight, flight, or freeze mode; but, even though we are cognitively lazy (as mentioned numerous times throughout this blog), our brains are good at what they do — so, if we are in a setting where we get a “safe” fright (e.g. watching a horror film, visiting a haunted house, or playing a scary video game) our brains will quickly evaluate the situation and tell us that we’re free from risk. Our bodies calm and many of us subsequently enjoy the experience. Thus, many of us are actually seeking "controlled" fear and suspense, because we know we are safe.
2. The Flood
When we get scared, we experience a rush of adrenaline and a release of endorphins and dopamine. The biochemical rush can result in a pleasure-filled, opioid-like sense of euphoria. Coupled with this, when we are reminded of our safety (i.e., the safety net), the experience of fear subsides, and we are left with a gratifying sense of relief and subsequent well-being.
Some people enjoy "pushing the envelope," seeking thrills, and seeing how much fear can be tolerated. If they are able to endure the barrage of anxiety, suspense, and fear, a great sense of self-satisfaction is often experienced. I’ll never forget being scared out of my mind watching The Shining when I was 12 years old, but also being quite proud of myself for making it through the entirety of the film without turning my head away!
4. Closeness with Others
A common piece of dating advice for young men years ago was to take their date to a scary movie. The tip was based on the idea that when their date got frightened, they would curl in for "protection"; thus, reinforcing a bond between the two (this is the G-Rated version of the rationale). Though the advice is certainly dated, there is some truth to it — applying to both people on the date. Given that being frightened releases a biochemical flood that can yield a pleasurable outcome, we often misattribute this arousal (i.e. the pleasurable outcomes of fear) to the individual with whom we’re spending that time; that is, the two people on the date like each other more now because of the pleasurable feeling experienced during their time together at the cinema — not necessarily because of each other’s company, but because of the outcomes of fear.
Many people are curious about the "dark side." The fear of the unknown is one of the most natural and instinctive fears that we have — and it is also one of the oldest curiosities. However, another notion I’ve mentioned countless times in past posts it that people like their worlds to make sense —they like things wrapped up in nice, neat little packages. Our world is easier to engage with when things make sense to us; and so, some may choose to engage further with 'the unknown' in order to better make sense of the situation.
Another way of looking at this perspective on the "curiosity of the dark side" is through consideration of thanatos. Though I’ve never been a big fan of Freud’s "theories," it would be unfair to dismiss his perspective on the death drive (and contrary to critical thinking) as a possible explanation for why so many like to be scared.
According to Freud, humans engage in potentially self-destructive acts because of an intrinsic death instinct — a preoccupation with death, if you will. Of course, there is little evidence to support this claim and substantially more to indicate that humans strive for self-preservation; however, this doesn’t explain, explicitly, why many individuals engage in such self-destructive behaviors — though other bodies of research suggest that many self-destructive behaviors are conducted because of biases towards (immediate) pleasure (e.g., drug-taking) or cost-benefit analyses of risk (e.g. 5 percent chance of dying versus 95 percent chance of looking cool). I think the latter point is particularly interesting given the focus on pleasure and our discussion of the flood, as well as on risk and our discussion of the safety net.
This Halloween season, if you watch a scary movie, visit a haunted house, or even play a scary video game, think about what you’re feeling and what’s happening to your body at that moment. Do you feel better after? Do you feel pleasure? Are you relieved that it’s over? Are you satisfied with yourself or, maybe, you feel closer to the person with who you experienced it? Reflect on the experience and think about it critically — think about why you might like getting scared!