Why Do We Like Scary Movies? (Read if you dare)

It’s a dark and stormy night. The babysitter hears a noise – it’s coming from the basement.

She walks over to the door and opens it slowly, staring down a pitch-black staircase. The noise happens again. Cautiously, she steps onto the first stair and begins her descent into darkness.

We see one foot, and then the other, step into the frame. In the corner of the shadowed room, just behind the old piano covered with a bed sheet, something moves. The babysitter gasps, spins around suddenly and then…

There’s something about scary movies – the heart-racing tension, the disquieting spookiness, the jumps and startles, even the predictability of the plot lines – that is so compelling.

Why is this? Why are we drawn to movies that scare us?

To get the mental health perspective, we sat down with Cari Ladd, LCSW, program manager of WellPower’s TherapyDirect program.

Why do we like scary movies?

“Research is telling us that there are several reasons,” said Ladd. “One is the opportunity to have novel experiences in a safe environment. As humans, we’re generally curious and so to have the opportunity to experience something you wouldn’t otherwise is attractive.”

Along with the novel experiences – even if they’re a bit vicarious – comes the chance to mentally rehearse our response to hypothetical situations. “So, to think about if we were in a similar situation, how we would manage that stressful and provoking experience – that’s called ‘mastery.’”

On a biochemical level, the stress response we experience involves chemicals and hormones that make us feel energetic and alert. “Research shows that when experiencing fear, as we do when watching horror movies, the brain releases chemicals including adrenaline that can ultimately result in a pleasurable experience,” Ladd explained.

According to Dolf Zillmann’s excitation transfer theory, experiencing the stress or excitement of a scary movie leads to a sense of relief afterwards. The higher the level of fear during the movie, the greater the sense of relief after it’s over, which can be a feel-good experience. A related theory is Sigmund Freud’s concept of “catharsis,” where a release of strong emotions produces a positive feeling. Some psychologists have even theorized that Carl Jung’s “Shadow” archetype might apply here.

Are there “pre-requisites” that make it possible for us to enjoy the scare?

Yes. Two researchers published the findings of their work on this topic in Harvard Business Review in 2021. They found that at least one of three “protective frames” needs to be in place for us to be able to enjoy being scared:

  • Safety: we need to be and feel physically safe. This makes sense – we don’t actually want to be in real danger, such as being chased by a serial killer. But when we know that it’s just a movie and we won’t be harmed by the disgruntled ghost, we can reframe the physical sensation we experience as excitement.
  • Detachment: we need to understand that the people we’re seeing on screen are actors doing a really good job of scaring us. It would be different if we thought what we were watching was actual footage of a real person running from something dangerous in the woods.
  • Control: this might seem counterintuitive because part of the allure of scary movies seems to be a loss of control, but it turns out that an ability to overcome or control the level of the danger is important. As the authors point out, in order to enjoy being scared by a zombie movie, for example, we need to be able to say confidently “I can outrun that slow zombie.”

What’s the difference between stress and excitement?

“It’s about how we appraise or interpret it,” said Ladd. Because the physiological response – the way our bodies mobilize with a rush of adrenaline and other stress hormones resulting in that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling – is so similar, “it really comes down to context. If you have a general sense of safety, then a novel or thrilling experience comes off as excitement. If you’re not feeling safe [or don’t have those protective forms we just talked about], that experience can be stress or fear.”

Side note: one common tactic for managing moments of nervousness or stress, such as a high-stakes presentation or difficult conversation, is to tell yourself, “I’m really excited about this.” This helps reframe the physical sensation of nervousness as excitement, thus turning a negative into a positive.

Who likes scary movies? Is there a particular “type” of person?

While we’re wary of describing distinct “types” of people, the research does seem to point to a few characteristics that correspond with a more positive experience with horror.

“Folks who generally experience lower levels of anxiety and empathy enjoy scary movies more versus those who have higher levels of anxiety and empathy,” explained Ladd. “Those folks [who tend towards greater empathy] may associate more closely with the characters and feel a lot of the same fear the characters are experiencing in the film,” thus resulting in a less enjoyable experience.

Unsurprisingly, “folks who are more thrill-seeking might enjoy them more,” said Ladd. Also predictably, “people who are open to new experiences tend to enjoy the genre more due to their ability to experience a novel situation in a positive way.”

Are there any benefits to watching scary movies?

There can be benefits to scary movies beyond the in-the-moment thrill. One potential benefit is “the opportunity to practice mastery over situations that aren’t likely to happen makes us feel more prepared when stressful situations occur in real life,” Ladd explained. “This is called ‘habituation.’”

A related benefit from a therapeutic perspective is the use of spooky movies in exposure therapy, a technique that is often used when working with someone who experiences anxiety. According to Ladd, “What happens over time is that our anxiety contributes to our avoiding the stimulus that makes us feel nervous.” Exposure therapy involves experiencing something that makes us feel anxious in small but increasing amounts so we learn how to manage our response.

“The opportunity to experience a stressful stimulus allows us to change the story we tell ourselves about our own capabilities, which helps us reduce anxiety over time,” Ladd explained. This can be true for scary movies, as well.

Another benefit uncovered by researchers is the possibility of increased social bonding, even romantic attachment. Experiencing the stress associated with scary situations, including movies, can facilitate feelings of closeness with people around us. When this phenomenon was examined between two people in a potentially romantic situation, they reported increased feelings of attraction and closeness.

How about you?

Do you like scary movies? Tell us why or why not by sending us a note.

Needing support? TherapyDirect is here for you

All talk of scary movies aside, if you or someone you know could use some support working through feelings of anxiety, stress, or anything else related to mental health, WellPower has experts standing by.

Our TherapyDirect program offers connection to a professional counselor in minutes, all online, no appointment necessary. Available to adults in metro Denver and beyond, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

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