“Do you like scary movies?” – Scream (1996)
The feeling of your heart thumping against your ribs as you hold your breath and widen your eyes. Just waiting for the moment, you know it is coming.
You hear footsteps…
You see shadows…
Your body jumps and you let out a loud (or quiet) scream. The end credits roll as you take a second to steady yourself before taking a breath and beaming as you think of the movie you have just watched. In a split second, your body goes from being paralysed with fear to being energized. You ignore and forget the gut-wrenching feeling you experienced all but moments ago and feel electrified. As soon as that feeling slips, you scroll through Netflix looking for another horror movie to live through this whole experience again.
But why choose to be scared? Why purposely be afraid? Why seek out fear?
The idea of horror movies is an odd concept, to say the least. It sounds psychotic and crazy to want to purposely experience fear. However, we all enjoy the spine-tingling feeling of fear to some extent. So, what about fear makes it so appealing that we would want to experience it through our own will?
To answer that question, we would have to look into the psychology of fear.
There are many reasons why humans find fear so alluring, however, I have summarised them into three categories.
1. Morbid Curiosity
In today’s day and age, there are many terrifying acts of violence and hatred scouring our Earth, however, we (students in a more economically developed country) are less likely to have experienced these horrors.
I don’t know about you, but I have never had to play a game of hide-and-seek with a serial killer…I think, and as far as I’m aware, there haven't been any psycho supernatural clowns running around the greater Sydney area.
I’m not saying we don’t experience fear, as that is a complete lie because we definitely do. What I am saying is that the fear in horror movies is usually a completely foreign kind of fear to us. I’m talking about zombie apocalypses and rampant deadly viruses -wait no I take that back. Let’s stick with zombie apocalypses as that hasn’t happened (yet).
So, when we watch horror movies a large reason for that is our morbid curiosity about the unknown and dark side of humanity.
A horror movie's main adjective is to scare viewers. So, the ability to endure watching a movie specifically designed to get you scared gives viewers a sense of accomplishment. You see this when people list horror movies that they have seen like an extensive collection of trophies. By watching a horror movie, viewers feel as if they’ve beat fear itself and outmatched the horror they’ve just witnessed.
3. The Rush – Chemical Release
Fear induces a rush of epinephrine released through our bodies, along with endorphins and dopamine triggering the innate ‘fight or flight’ response. This rush prompts a euphoric experience as this gets us feeling stronger, physically powerful, and emotionally intuitive.
Our brains also remind us that no matter what horrors are taking place on the screen in front of us, we are in a safe location. While jump scares get up to yelp and jump up in our seats, our brain lets us know that we are free from risk. This then calms our body back down so we can enjoy the adrenaline rush and the rest of the movie.
Therefore, to answer the question of why fear is so appealing, it all must come down to our psychology. In a dystopian world where our fears are mostly unavoidable and looming alarmingly near, we find a need to control it all; horror movies provide us with that control. While the situations in these movies might be completely unrealistic, it still causes us to feel fearful and extra cautious. While fear itself is not super appealing, the rush of adrenaline can be exhilarating like going on a rollercoaster. The endings of these horror movies allow us to feel powerful and in better control of our lives, with the feeling that we have beaten fear itself.