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Fear

On the Psychology of Horror Movies

Horror provides an imaginative context in which people can play with fear.

Key points

  • Many people derive pleasure from frightening entertainment.
  • Horror movies invite viewers to immerse themselves in threat scenarios.
  • When we play with fear, we may learn lessons about our own responses to danger.

Horror remains one of the most popular and profitable film genres. Movies about possessed dolls, murderous maniacs, slobbering monsters, bloodthirsty vampires, and rotting zombies draw enormous audiences. The recent remake of the classic horror movie Candyman has grossed more than $ 56 million in domestic box office sales. That’s more than 6 million tickets sold in the US, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is still making life difficult for the creative industries.

Fotokita Shutterstock
Source: Fotokita Shutterstock

On the face of it, this is peculiar. Horror movies are, as the name suggests, designed to evoke negative emotions in viewers—fear, dread, anxiety, horror, and disgust. Why would anybody in their right mind seek out such movies? Indeed, are those folks who seek out those movies in their right mind?

On closer inspection, it is not that paradoxical. People who enjoy horror movies—and that’s more than half of us (Clasen, Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, & Johnson, 2020)—do not just expect to feel fear, dread, anxiety, horror, and disgust when they seek out horror movies. They expect pleasure as well. Indeed, they derive pleasure from those negative emotions. If they expected only to be terrified out of their minds by horror movies, we’d have a real paradox on our hands. The question then is, how can people derive pleasure from frightening entertainment?

My colleagues and I have established a research lab, the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University, to investigate this interesting phenomenon. We have done empirical studies on guests in a commercial haunted attraction to understand how they regulate their own fear as they are being chased by killer clowns and flesh-hungry zombies (Clasen et al., 2019), we have investigated the different types of horror fans and their motives for seeking out horror (Scrivner et al., in prep.), and we have delved into the relationship between fear and enjoyment in recreational fear (Andersen et al., 2021), to name just a few recent studies.

We think that horror provides an imaginative context in which people can play with fear. Horror movies invite viewers to immerse themselves in threat scenarios. As viewers, we are made to feel with and for the characters who face terrifying danger, and we respond powerfully to depictions of scary monsters and horrors from beyond the grave because those horrors stimulate the fear system with which evolution has equipped us (Öhman & Mineka, 2001). And because the fear system evolved to respond selectively to ancestrally relevant threats, the threats depicted in horror movies tend to reflect dangers that have haunted our species for thousands or even millions of years (Clasen, 2012).

Consider the slithering serpents, enormous spiders, and reptilian monsters that populate horror. They don’t reflect modern dangers, but rather those threats that kept our distant ancestors up at night. Even less plausible horror monsters, such as zombies, make sense once we consider the construction of the evolved fear system. There may not have been zombies chasing our ancestors in prehistory, but that monster is equipped with traits that reliably trigger our fear system, such as cues of predation and contagion. Zombies want to eat us and infect us. That’s a potent cocktail.

Horror movies immerse us in fictional worlds that are full of ancestrally resonant danger, and most of us enjoy this imaginative engagement with threat scenarios. It’s not that different from children finding great pleasure in chase play, which is basically a ritualized enactment of predator-prey interactions (Steen & Owens, 2001). Presumably, we evolved to find pleasure in threat simulation because of the learning potential of such simulation. When we play with fear, we may learn important lessons about the dangers of the world as well as our own responses to danger. We learn what it feels like to be afraid, and we get to practice and hone fear-regulation strategies. We may even become more resilient in the process.

In a recent study, led by the behavioral scientist Coltan Scrivner, we investigated whether horror movie fans were more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 lockdowns than non-fans. We found that yes, people who watch many horror movies did indeed report less psychological distress (Scrivner et al., 2021). We think that this is because horror movies provide a context in which people can practice emotional regulation—that people may get better at managing their own fear and anxiety through engaging with recreational fear.

It is not that weird, then, that most people enjoy scary movies. Conversely, those people who enjoy scary movies are not weird. They are just giving in to a natural impulse to immerse themselves in threat scenarios, an impulse that may very well be adaptive.

References

Andersen, M. M., Schjoedt, U., Price, H., Rosas, F. E., Scrivner, C., & Clasen, M. (2020). Playing with fear: A field study in recreational horror. Psychological Science, 31(12), 1497-1510. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0956797620972116

Clasen, M. (2012). Monsters evolve: A biocultural approach to horror stories. Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 222-229. https://doi.org/10.1037%2Fa0027918

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

Clasen, M., Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, J., & Johnson, J. A. (2020). Horror, personality, and threat simulation: A survey on the psychology of scary media. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 14(3), 213. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/ebs0000152

Öhman, A., & Mineka, S. (2001). Fears, phobias, and preparedness: Toward an evolved module of fear and fear learning. Psychological review, 108(3), 483. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0033-295X.108.3.483

Scrivner, C., Andersen, M. M., & Clasen, M. (in prep.). The psychological benefits of scary play in three types of horror fans. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/sdxe6

Scrivner, C., Johnson, J. A., Kjeldgaard-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

Steen, F., & Owens, S. (2001). Evolution's pedagogy: An adaptationist model of pretense and entertainment. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 1(4), 289-321.

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