If you, like so many others, found yourself sucked into Netflix’s latest smash hit Squid Game, or say, American Horror Story, you’re not alone. But what is it about these (and others like them) that captivate us? Fortunately, science wants to provide us with an answer.
While it may make more sense for us as a species to avoid rather than be drawn to movies like The Silence of the Lambs, Child’s Play, Candyman or Stephen King adaptations like The Shining, there are some psychological explanations — and even benefits — to watching horror movies and shows.
We tend to be sensation-seekers who like to see different realities
Whether we like them or not, scary movies and spooky stories grab our attention and take us on an emotional rollercoaster. We go through the ups (excitement, relief) and downs (uncertainty, fear, shock). We pay attention, often at the edge of our seats. Humans are innately wired to stop and carefully assess any potentially dangerous stimuli, and horror does a superb job of mimicking scary scenarios in safe settings (on a screen, in a movie theatre, at home, etc.). The release of adrenaline brings a rush that many people seek in an otherwise safe environment.
Many scary movies also introduce us to novel scenarios that satisfy our curiosity and expose us to realities we may not have otherwise personally come across.
Interestingly, science supports this: those who score higher on sensation-seeking and openness to new experiences tend to have a greater preference for horror.
We’re both fascinated and scared of the ‘Shadow’ archetype
Psychologist Carl Jung developed a theory of “the archetype,” which explains universal character themes, like the ‘Shadow.’
Jung posited that the ‘Shadow’ generally represents the unknown, weakness or repressed ideas, and this typically includes constructs our society has deemed unacceptable or offensive to our morals or ethics. The ‘Shadow’ is often personified as a serial killer, demon, dragon or anything else that makes our collective spine tingle.
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We seek catharsis through scary stories
Psychologist Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, proposed that the build-up and subsequent release of pent-up emotions can have a cathartic (emotionally cleansing) effect. When we watch horror movies or shows, we often experience the build-up of suspense, uncertainty, fear, shock, disgust and more. However, ultimately we know these stories to be that — stories, and not our immediate reality. Since we often voluntarily invite this experience, on some level we know that we are in a safe environment and we maintain a sense of control over the situation.
When the experience is done, a sense of relief often follows and the experience can ultimately make us feel as though we are better capable of handling difficult situations IRL — no matter how dark or challenging. The idea is that through repeated exposure (and thus practice) we gain mastery over real-life fear-inducing situations.
A 2021 study corroborates this, finding that people who enjoy horror feel less fear and anxiety surrounding the pandemic, as an example.
Some people enjoy horror more than others
A 2019 meta-study (the study of other studies) concluded that those who experience less fear and empathy find greater enjoyment in and desire for scary movies. The researchers also found that men seem to enjoy horror more than their female counterparts, who were associated with greater empathy and were more likely to experience anxiety and disgust.
Related: 10 signs you’re dating a sociopath.
Interestingly, those who scored higher on manipulativeness and deceitfulness also showed less sadness and disgust while watching horror, and those with more antisocial personality disorder traits (which includes lower empathy) preferred more graphically violent scary films. Furthermore, those who are more emotionally stable also got scared less easily. However, for those who were less stable, horror movies only amplified anxiety and psychological distress — and crucially even after the movie was over; these individuals took this response to the realities of living as well (i.e. pandemics).
Lastly, while younger kids were more scared of mythical figures, older kids tended to feared more realistic villains like criminals or serial killers.
See also: Jax Taylor takes the Sociopath Test.
Could horror movies be a pathway to love?
OkCupid founder Sam Yagan, considered the Grandfather of Online Dating, discovered that, when it comes to long-term compatibility, aligning on whether you and your prospective partner enjoy horror movies is a biggie.
“You can disagree on religion, you can disagree on pets, you can disagree on lots of things,” Yagan told Business Insider. But willingly seeking out horror movies is a deeply innate thing, he added, providing a glimpse into who we are as people at our core.
Related: 10 signs you’ve found the one.
There’s a helpful framework for watching scary movies
Research has also found that there is a sweet spot for when we can derive pleasure from watching scary movies. The protective framework requires us to filter the movie-watching experience through three “frames”:
- The safety frame: We need to feel physically safe and protected
- The detachment frame: We need to know that what we are watching isn’t real; these are actors on a movie set
- The protective frame: We feel confident that we can control and manage real-life dangers
The absence of these considerations reduces people’s desire to seek out horror. It is worth noting then that studies have also found that there is a connection between “resource scarcity” (in other words, not having the buffer of material or financial comforts) and preference for horror.
Not having financial resources reduces the protective frame needed to enjoy horror. This suggests that for many, reality just might be scary enough.