This post is also available in Dutch.
“Trick or Treat!” Halloween will be celebrated this Saturday. Aside from scaring each other with freaky costumes, we also love to watch horror movies that frighten us. Why do we like to be frightened? No one really enjoys being scared… Right? What can tell science us about this paradox?
When I was a child, I was always afraid of the dark. It wasn’t until I was quite a bit older (at an almost embarrassing age) was I finally ready to sleep without the lights turned on. I was scared of the monsters underneath my bed, ghosts in the corners of my room, but most of all I was scared of the green slimy monster from The Ghost Busters. Now, years later, I’m a big fan of horror movies. Even though I cover my eyes when it becomes really scary, I still want to see all of the movies, preferably late at night, in the dark.
What happens actually to our body when we are scared?
Imagine you end up in a scene of The Shining. You are facing the man with the axe and it looks like he is after you. What do you do? Do you freeze, run away or fight back? In this moment, multiple processes which govern physical responses are happening in your body. Your autonomic nervous system consists of two systems. First, the parasympathetic nervous system, which serves to bring your body to its calm, resting state. This resting state is definitely not suited for facing a man with an axe. The other system, however, is. This is the sympathetic system which prepares the body for action, placing it in an active state. In this state, your heart pounds faster, blood vessels in your muscles are dilated, you breathe faster and your pupils widen. You are ready for fight or flight.
But why do we watch horror movies?
When we watch horror movies, our body reacts in a similar way as it would to a real threat. For this reason, to examine fear and anxiety in scientific experiments, we make use of scary movies to frighten participants. Interestingly, when we are enjoying a fun, positive activity, our body reacts similar as it would to a scary situation. For example, if we replaced the man with the axe with your crush, your heart would also pound harder, etc. So, how do we distinguish between positive and negative emotions? Well, emotions are thought to not only be produced by a physical reaction, but also by cognitive processes. For this reason, some theories have proposed that the manner in which we label our physical reaction is associated with the context of our reaction, and how we interpret the context. Perhaps this is one way to explain the horror paradox. For now, though, it is still speculative as to why we enjoy horror movies. Another possibility could be that our physical reaction to stress in a safe environment gives us a positive feeling. In the same way that people like to go on a roller coaster ride or bungee jump off of a cliff. For some people it it sounds terrifying but for others an exhilarating experience.
This blog was written by guest blogger Linda de Voogd. Linda is a PhD student at the Donders Institute. Her research is focused on the influence of stress on memory. She is also a major horror movie fan. Her favorite horror movie is The Conjuring.