With Halloween just around the corner, unnerving movie trailers and twisted psychological thrillers burrow their way into our minds — and our local movie theaters — to scare the bejesus out of us.
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So in a world full of super-scary actual real-life things that happen around us every day, why do so many of us gravitate toward forms of entertainment that scare us witless? We did a little digging to learn more about the appeal of horror movies, and we bet the results will surprise you!
1. Fans don’t necessarily go to be scared.
Glenn Sparks, professor at the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, has conducted extensive research on the appeal behind scary movies. He says those of us who gravitate toward scary movies aren’t necessarily looking to be scared. “Fear is a negative emotion,” he explained. “[When it comes to horror movies] I think people like other things about the experience that get confused with fear — like the rush of adrenaline they get.”
2. Scary movies can boost our confidence.
Sparks says that scary movies present viewers with the opportunity to conquer something challenging. “Some people may feel better after successfully confronting any fears that might be depicted in these movies. It may help to convince them that if those fearful situations occurred in real life, they might be able to deal with it,” he says, adding that they may also relish the bragging rights they’ve earned for making it through the scariest movie in the theater.
3. The need to be scared may be coded into our DNA.
Dr. Mathias Clasen wrote a thesis on horror for the Department of Aesthetics and Communication at Aarhus University. In Science Nordic, Dr. Clasen explained that the need for scary stimuli, such as those from horror movies, is almost primal. How? Ancestors who lived as hunter-gatherers prepared for possible attacks from predators by training their reactions to stressful situations, and the desire to do so became stored in our DNA. “When we watch a horror movie, we’re satisfying that desire. We’re training our danger preparedness,” he’d said.
4. Affinity for the horror genre depends on how your brain works.
Sparks says when watching a scary flick, two parts of your brain get activated: the thalamus and the amygdala. The thalamus processes initial messages from the body, and then the amygdala helps a person determine if the depicted fear is a serious threat or if it’s simply a coping strategy to protect one’s sense of well-being. So whether we like these movies or not depends on how these parts of your brain work together in reaction to the stimulus of a scary movie.
A 2009 study published in Human Brain Mapping examined why some people seek out scary stimuli like being scared by frightening movies, while others would go out of their way to avoid them. They found a connection between people they deemed sensation seekers and “cerebral hypoactivation” during scary, or “neural,” film clips.
5. Horror movies are great for bonding.
In a recent U.K. study published by the Royal Society of Open Science, a control group of people were shown two films — one that was deemed to be “traumatic” and another that wasn’t — to determine if “emotionally arousing drama, in particular, triggers the same neurobiological mechanism (the endorphin system, reflected in increased pain thresholds) that underpins anthropoid primate and human social bonding.”
Their findings? Both pain threshold and sense of bonding within the group did increase after watching the “emotionally arousing” film. Sparks also described something similar: “If people are with their friends and having fun after the movie, the arousal induced by the film can intensify the fun so much so that people associate positive feelings with going to a horror film,” he explains.
6. Scary films burn calories.
When you’re scared, adrenaline surges through your body, and this raises your metabolic rate. According to The Telegraph, a University of Westminster study monitored how much energy 10 people expended after watching a few scary movies and learned the number of calories they’d burned (200 during one movie) increased by as much as a third during the movies. That’s one way to burn off Halloween candy!
What Do YOU Think?
Do you enjoy horror movies? If so, why? If not, why not? What is your absolute favorite scary movie? What is your favorite feeling you get from watching a scary movie?