Being Scared – We Love It, But Why?

In a way, the second question answers the first, in that we watch horror movies because we like to be scared. As to why we like to be scared, that’s a bit tougher to answer. Sitting here now, as I write, I have a puzzled look on my face and am shrugging, but why? Because the simple answer is that I just do. I know that’s not really what you are looking for so I will delve more deeply. See if any of what I am about to talk about resonates with you.

I think that we need to distinguish between two types of fear – real and imagined – because, for me, the two are poles apart and this will go some way to explaining our enjoyment of being scared by horror.

From a biological point of view, being scared is being scared. Your body can’t tell the difference between real and imagined fear. From the dawn of time, our bodies have been primed to respond to the threat of being eaten by the sabre tooth tiger and that response has never disappeared. In times of fear, our bodies release all sorts of hormones, the most well-known being cortisol and adrenaline, to help prime our bodies to fight that sabre tooth tiger or run away and hide. What our bodies also produce in times of anxiety, of which fear can be said to be one, is dopamine – the feel good hormone. This hormone is released by thrills and chills, excitement and anxiety. So, does this help explain why we like to be scared – it makes us feel good?

I would like to tender the argument that being scared doesn’t always make us feel good. It all depends on how real the threat is. Think about it. What ‘real’ thing are you afraid of? For me, it’s snakes. I get it from my mum. Having grown up watching her response to seeing a snake, I have developed learned behaviour and how to respond to the sight of a snake. I have never had a bad encounter with one, so there is no feasible reason why I should be afraid, but I am.

My response to seeing a snake is utter terror. My fight or flight is on high alert, but instead of making me run or fight, it roots me to the spot. Why? Maybe because my brain is thinking that if I don’t move, the snake will slither away and not bother with me. The pain I feel in my chest is so acute that I actually fear that I may have a heart attack. Not once has dopamine managed to convince me that this is a good feeling. Can anyone else relate to this?

So, why is the response different when we read a horror story or watch a horror movie? Why is it being afraid in these situations allows dopamine to play it’s role and give us a good feeling, after adrenaline and his pals have got us all worked up?

I tender that it is because, deep down in our psyche, we know we are safe. What we are watching or reading stays firmly on screen or in that book and cannot physically touch us. We can enjoy the feeling of being scared without dealing with the aftermath of being attacked, for want of a better word. There is also a resolution to these tales, a happy ending if you will, where the bad guy gets defeated and good wins out over evil…..until that final scene where you know they’ll be a sequel, of course!

That’s one explanation for why we like to be scared and hence why we love our horror – it is a given that our fears will be resolved in the end – but there are others.

How about this thought – scaring ourselves allows us to rehearse for the possibility of threatening situations, like a play, from a position of safety? The Walking Dead has helped us immeasurably in preparing for the impending zombie apocalypse; Dracula has given us sage advice on how to destroy vampires – stake through the heart, followed by decapitation; Friday the 13th has taught us how to avoid serial killers, by never going to camp. You catch my drift.

How about this one though – it allows us to explore the outer boundaries of our imaginations in a safe environment? Ever wondered what it would be like to be a serial killer or to torture someone just for the hell of it? Ever wondered what impact a knife or a gun can have on a body? These, and many more, are things that horror films and books allow us to explore, without us harming anyone and landing in jail. Horror allows us to explore our curiosities, both visually and emotionally.

I did a little bit of research on why we like to be scared and here is a summary of the top 6 reasons:

  1. The adrenaline rush – we like to feel pumped and ready.
  2. Tips for survival – well, I know how to survive a zombie apocalypse, do you?
  3. The natural high – there’s no feeling like a dopamine feeling. Theme parks aren’t always doable, so a horror movie is the next best thing.
  4. That sense of accomplishment – there’s no denying that sense of achievement when the bad guys get what’s coming.
  5. Escapism – most of us read and go to the movies as an escape from real life. Another world is another world.
  6. We want to feel something extreme – we want to be pushed to the very edge emotionally, after all, the edge is where the greatest high is!

For me, dear reader, whilst I do like to be scared, going to see a horror movie is more of a laying down the gauntlet. I am waiting and craving for them to scare me……..still waiting. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the creepiness though!

I’d love to hear from you on this as it is very much an individual thing. Are you like me, waiting for the hormones to rage, or do you come out emotionally drained, but happy?

May fear protect you when the darkness comes.

Til next time.