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How 3 Types of Fans Benefit from Horror

The psychological benefits you get from horror depend on the kind of fan you are

Key points

  • Horror fans can be classified along three dimensions: Adrenaline Junkies, White Knucklers, and Dark Copers
  • Dark copers are a newly-identified type of horror fans, who use horror to cope with problems like feelings of anxiety.
  • Adrenaline junkies get a mood boost from the intense experiences of horror.
  • White knucklers and dark copers learn about themselves when engaging with horror.
Anya Balatova/Unsplash
Source: Anya Balatova/Unsplash

Although scary films have long been popular and incredibly profitable, horror is a commonly misunderstood genre. Horror fans are often depicted as juvenile or lacking empathy. For example, a film critic recently claimed that fans of horror movies like Saw are “depraved lunatics.” However, as I and others have pointed out previously, empathy is not a great measure of how “good” someone is. In fact, horror fans actually score lower in cold-heartedness – a measure of disregard for others’ feelings – than non-horror fans.

Another common misconception about horror fans is that they are all just sensation-seeking adrenaline junkies. Sensation-seeking is a trait defined by a desire for novel and high-arousal stimuli – things like roller coasters, bungee-jumping, and extreme sports. Since horror often elicits high levels of arousal from the audience, many have argued that sensation-seeking is at the core of horror’s appeal.

While sensation-seeking certainly matters when it comes to horror, the reality is much more complex. In a recent set of studies that recruited online participants and visitors at a haunted house, my colleagues and I found that sensation-seeking is only one aspect of horror’s appeal. In fact, we found that horror fans can be categorized across three dimensions: adrenaline junkies, white knucklers, and dark copers.

The Adrenaline Junkie

At the core of the adrenaline junkie is a desire for novel, complex, and intense experiences. This is the demographic to whom horror films and haunted houses often advertise when they emphasize the fear and intense experience that the audience can expect. When asked how they feel about horror films, adrenaline junkies report loving the sensations they get from watching a scary movie and enjoying the suspenseful aspects of horror. In the haunted house, adrenaline junkies tend to upregulate their arousal by immersing themselves more in the experience.

The White Knuckler

Not every horror fan is an adrenaline junkie. A large number fall along the white knuckler dimension. This dimension is characterized by being genuinely afraid of horror movies and not necessarily enjoying the suspenseful aspects. Many white knucklers even report having nightmares from watching the films. However, white knucklers still go to horror movies and haunted houses. Unlike the adrenaline junkies who try to maximize their arousal in the haunted house, white knucklers tend to downregulate their arousal.

The Dark Coper

While previous studies had reported on the existence of adrenaline junkies and white knucklers, dark copers had not been previously described. We found that people who score high in the dark coper dimension use a mix of strategies: Some downregulate their arousal and some upregulate it. What makes this group distinct is that they tend to use horror as a way to cope with various aspects of their lives. For example, many dark copers report that they watch horror movies to deal with feelings of anxiety that they experience. Though this group had not been previously described, I have written before on the idea that horror might be a good way for some people to practice emotion regulation skills and cope with feelings of anxiety.

The Benefits of Horror

In addition to identifying the three types of horror fans, our study at the haunted house showed that different types of fans also receive different psychological benefits from their experience. After visitors completed the haunted house experience, we asked them three questions:

  1. Based on your experience inside the haunt, how good do you feel right now?
  2. Based on your experience inside the haunt, do you feel like you learned something about yourself?
  3. Based on your experience inside the haunt, do you feel like you’ve developed on a personal level?

The degree to which a participant was an adrenaline junkie predicted the extent to which they felt good after the haunt, while the degree to which someone was a white knuckler predicted the extent to which they felt as if they learned something about themselves or developed on a personal level. What about the dark copers? Interestingly, those who scored higher on the dark coper dimension reported all three benefits: they felt great, learned something about themselves, and felt as if they developed on a personal level. In some ways, the dark copers were the perfect horror fans.

 Mathew Schwartz/Unsplash
Source: Mathew Schwartz/Unsplash

What a Good Scare Can Teach Us

We asked the people who said they learned something about themselves or developed on a personal level to tell us a little more about what they learned or how they developed. Some reported feeling as if they learned how to make decisions under pressure while others learned that they could handle more than they thought they could. While there were many different responses, most were variations on these two themes.

Scary play offers a variety of learning opportunities. Some people might learn skills for dealing with anxiety or fear while others might learn that they can handle more extreme situations than they thought. If we are thoughtful about it, we can use frightening fictional experiences to teach us about ourselves and perhaps even improve how we handle anxiety-inducing experiences. In any case, one thing’s for sure: Horror isn’t just for adrenaline junkies.

References

Scrivner, C., Andersen, M. M., & Clasen, M. (2021). The Psychological Benefits of Scary Play in Three Types of Horror Fans. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/sdxe6

Clasen, M., Andersen, M., & Schjoedt, U. (2019). Adrenaline junkies and white-knucklers: A quantitative study of fear management in haunted house visitors. Poetics, 73, 61-71. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.poetic.2019.01.002

Scrivner, C., & Christensen, K. A. (2021). Scaring away anxiety: Therapeutic avenues for horror fiction to enhance treatment for anxiety symptoms. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/7uh6f

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