As a psychologist, I am asked a lot of questions about behaviour. Why do we do what we do? Why do we like some things and hate others? One very interesting question I was asked recently was, why do some people enjoy watching horror films? I found this question really intriguing, mainly because it speaks to our human nature more than anything else – curiosities in our behaviour that run so deep, we cannot explain them by cultural explanations alone. Here is what the research evidence has to say on the matter.

What is enjoyable about watching horror? What is it that appeals? When you watch something scary, does your heart race? Do you feel physically on edge? Agitated? Do you maybe freeze still, tensed? Psychologists would say this is a state of extreme physiological arousal, and it has to do with your body’s stress response system. Think of things like being surprised or startled, or being excited about something. Your body is responding with a fight-or-flight response, so you can bug out if you need to, or fight the scary thing. In doing this, your body pumps out stress hormones like adrenaline in order to mobilise energy so it’s ready to be put to use immediately. Watching horror media can get that system working, and all that energy bubbles away just below the surface, potentially making you feel anxious, agitated, full of nervous energy. Doing this in a safe way can be enjoyable simply because it gets your blood pumping, and that feels exciting, even thrilling. Something like skydiving has the same effect. Ultimately, you’ve had a very intense emotional experience that you’ve felt with your whole body, and that can be exhilarating.

Another related explanation, a bit more complex, is the excitation transfer theory: that there is something in the build-up of stress and anticipation – the negative feelings while watching horror switch to enjoyment or euphoria when that tension is released, or resolved at the end of the film. So it’s a bit like a rollercoaster – scary at first and then exhilarating when the suspense is over. This is of course true for all types of media that contain an element of suspense without overt horror, for example some TV dramas or even video game play.

One way to apply this might be to watch a horror film with a date. There is some evidence that participating together in frightening events can lead your partner to find you more attractive – this is known as the misattribution of arousal – their excited state (from the fear) can overlap with (and contribute to) the excitement of romantic attraction. The first study looking at this used participants who met their researcher outside. The participants found her more attractive when she met her them in the middle of a precarious bridge. This is similar to a classic experiment dealing with emotion, which resulted in the Schacter-Singer theory of emotion. Here, test subjects were unknowingly given adrenaline, to create a state of physiological arousal, which was directed toward feeling different emotions based on different lab settings. Some became angry while others became happy or euphoric, depending on the emotions of others around them. This may be an explanation for the bridge phenomenon, where those who were perhaps more frightened had that nervous energy diverted toward feelings of romantic attraction when they met the researcher.

Back now to horror films. Who enjoys them? Personality may influence how people engage with horror media. People high in the trait sensation-seeking enjoy horror more – this is the seeking of varied, novel, complex and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take risks for the sake of such experiences. So if you’re open to new experiences and actively seek them out, you may have been more likely to enjoy the film. This is especially the case for those who are also high in intellect who enjoy things that are both stimulating and challenging – horror fits that perfectly. Research also suggests that if you’re highly empathetic, you may not enjoy horror. Men and boys prefer to watch horror more than women and girls – I suspect there is a connection here to testosterone (higher in men) and to disgust sensitivity (higher in women) but also to how different interests might have been encouraged for boys vs girls while growing up.

What about psychopathy? Some research suggests that the presence of the dark triad of traits (yes this is a real scientific term – seems so appropriate in this context) is related to the enjoyment of horror media. These three traits are narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Different types of psychopathy are related to horror movie preference as well as things like violent sports (and an aversion to romance, pop music and non-violent sports). However, you don’t need to be a psychopath to enjoy horror cinema. Recent research shows these relationships to be small, and most of the explanation about the liking of horror films lies somewhere other than with disordered personality – for example in sensation seeking as described above. What’s perhaps more interesting about the dark triad is that these are personality traits regularly utilised to create frightening characters in this genre of film, which probably explains why people think you must be a psychopath to enjoy it.

Is there an evolutionary element to horror enjoyment? Here evolutionary researchers weigh in. I’m quite amenable to this approach because the way I got into psychology initially was by studying human evolution and how this has shaped behaviour, so I can’t leave this one out! Here we have threat simulation theory: the idea is that the simulation of threat scenarios can help us prepare for real-life events. This is ultimately safe (albeit masochistic) emotional stimulation. Humans evolved in a world that was much more violent and dangerous than it is today, so this simulation could serve a genuine purpose of preparing people for when bad things happen. Of course, the odds of these things happening in modern life are very low, but engaging with them could be somehow pleasurable because it might have conferred some advantage to our ancestors. It is likely that the types of events depicted in horror media that have little odds of occurring today (for example, being hunted by predators or followed by a murderer) were much more common in our evolutionary past. Thinking through what you might do in a situation like this could have seemed commonplace to our ancient ancestors, and perhaps has led to their survival – and living, as opposed to dying, allowed their genetic lineage to continue, passing on these innate feelings and behaviours to us today.

Is there any evidence supporting this theory? Research shows that people tend to engage with horror media that fits with their world view, suggesting that frightening depictions that seem plausible are more enjoyable than those that are not. For example, those who believe in the paranormal tend to prefer supernatural horror (e.g. demons, witches) while atheists tend to prefer more human-based baddies. The thought here is that people seek out horror that they might find somehow likely to occur in real life. Of course this all happens unconsciously – I don’t think it’s very likely that anyone would consciously and purposefully seek out horror movies to help them prepare for a real-life disaster, should it ever befall them. What the threat simulation theory doesn’t explain is why so many people are aversive to this type of media. Here, likely, differences in our personalities are likely to explain a great deal of this variation in who likes horror and who does not.

A very interesting recent finding is that horror fans appear to be more psychologically resilient in the face of Covid-19. They are less psychologically distressed and feel more prepared for the pandemic. Importantly, it is unclear whether this is a causal relationship – that their horror consumption led directly to their Covid-19 resilience – or whether there are underlying psychological traits which lead both to horror consumption and resilience, such as high emotional stability. Nonetheless, this supports the threat simulation theory in the modern environment. It is as if the psychological preparation for adverse events may provide a buffer for when stress occurs in real life. Whether or not we can use this to our advantage in our own lives is rather more elusive. Perhaps we might strive to push our boundaries by consuming some horror media, suspenseful crime dramas, or video games. But, if this sort of thing isn’t really up your street to begin with, you might not become anything other than terrified.

[Published February 2021]

Dr Kristen Knowles

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