The horror paradox: why people enjoy being scared

Emily Sheffield

From the invention of storytelling to the gore filled Hollywood thrillers that sell out our movie theaters today, people have been drawn to the idea of the dark and twisted.
It is easy to understand why many people harbor an intense loathing of horror-oriented entertainment. Such reasons may include, but are not limited to: nightmares, paranoia, uneasiness and a complete loss of innocence. So then why on earth do people flock to Stephen King movies? Why do people like visiting haunted houses and other such terrifying Halloween attractions? Why do people enjoy being scared?
Most recently people get their fix of scary through the silver screen. Some horror movie connoisseurs would argue it’s harmless fun, but according to professor Glenn Sparks of Purdue University, the fear we feel simply watching someone being attacked by a serial killer is as real as the fear we would feel if it were actually happening to us.
“We can tell ourselves the images on the screen are not real, but emotionally our brains act as if they are,” Sparks said in Richard Sines’ article Why We Love Scary Movies. During frightening films some people may even experience increased heart rate and blood pressure, the tensing of muscles, sweaty palms and even a drop in skin temperature. So why do we put ourselves through it?
When we are frightened, our bodies pump out adrenaline which causes an excited state of mind similar to that produced by thrilling activities such as skydiving or riding a roller-coaster. So it makes sense that thrill seekers would enjoy a good horror movie.
But of course you don’t have to be an adrenaline junky to enjoy a good scare. In the same way that people who have a negative experience during or after watching a horror movie tend to forevermore dislike the genre, people who have a positive experience while watching a horror movie will tend to associate their positive feelings with the movie and thus enjoy it more and be willing to go see another.
Another reason people may enjoy horror films is because they’re all about death.
“Humans are obsessed with death; we simply have a hard time wrapping our minds around what happens when we die,” The Atlantic’s Allegra Ringo said. “We want to imagine a life that goes on after we die, or better yet, figure out a way to live forever.” That’s why some of us enjoy movies about zombies, vampires or ghosts — it provides the idea of a world in which we don’t have to leave everything behind.
Before there were movies, people had to resort to other mediums to satisfy their appetites for horror. Freak shows were the old version of modern horror movies. We often shudder when we hear about how back in the 1800s people with deformities were such a popular attraction. But is it really so hard to believe why tickets to P.T. Barnum’s Cabinet of Curiosities were in such high demand? Not only would it have been an exciting break from ordinary, everyday life but it also, oddly enough, can make us feel normal. After looking at Siamese twins or a two-faced man, suddenly my big nose doesn’t seem like such a terrible curse after all.
Although it may seem crazy to actually enjoy being frightened, it would seem that horror movies and other horrifying, heart-stopping attractions are not on their way out.