Horror Movies: Why We Love Getting Scared

  • July 29, 2013
  • Jenna Maxwell

Have you seen “The Conjuring?”  If you haven’t, you and I may be some of the few remaining hold out’s that haven’t yet succumbed to the spooky intrigue and legitimate fear this movie dangles in front of us like a proverbial carrot.  Ranking #1 at the box office last week with close to $42 million dollars in ticket sales, I was actually slightly surprised that such a dramatic, truly scary looking horror film had the ability to secure the top selling spot--especially with so many other big blockbuster films to choose from now in theatres.  What is it about horror films that people like?  Why are so many of us completely drawn to them? 

Real Fear:  Scientists have shown that horror films create a definite physiological change within our bodies.  When watching a horror film that fills us with fear, we can tell ourselves that it’s not real, but our brains can’t always process the difference between real and imagined fear.  While watching a horror film, the pulse can elevate up 15 beats per minute over its normal rate, while palms begin to sweat, body muscles tighten and the blood pressure also begins to rise.  What is going on here?  It’s not as if the action in the movie is really happening, right? 

It seems that even though on some level we know that “it’s just a movie”, the effect on our brain is similar to what happens during real events, resulting in a physiological reaction similar to what happens during actual fearful events.  Similar body responses happen when riding a thrilling roller coaster ride or going skydiving.  The adrenaline rush caused by the excitement or fear from the experience causes the body to respond accordingly. Some people find this type of rush enjoyable--others quite frankly, do not.

Studies have shown that more men than women respond positively to these self-imposed fearful situations.  It seems that some men find that the more fear they perceive they have endured, the more enjoyable the experience was for them, so in this case, the scarier the movie was the more the man may have liked it.  This male connection to conquering fear may very well be related to our tribal ancestors when it was a common right of passage into manhood for males to have to endure some kind of hardship or trial at the time of his coming of age.

Curiosity.  There is no doubt that people are very curious about things that they may find scary and frightening.  Ask anyone who’s been stuck in a traffic jam behind an accident scene on the highway and they will tell you that people have an irresistible, morbid curiosity about things that are potentially grisly, gruesome or even shocking.  The same holds true with horror films--we may feel somewhat daunted by the prospect of putting ourselves into a circumstance where we know we are going to be scared--but our curiosity about what is going to happen drives us to do it anyway.

Emotional Rescue: Some horror movie lovers find the experience of being really scared somewhat cathartic.  Seeing someone else going through something fearful can be an emotional release for some.  Others find that because of the physiological arousal that is experienced during a scary movie, all other emotions are heightened simultaneously.  Thus, if you were out with friends having a great time, the experience will seem even more fun and exciting when your body is in an elevated emotional state when it is experiencing fear.  If something negative were to occur while you were also in this state, the opposite emotions would then be the ones to be exacerbated.

Whether you are a horror film fan or not, there is no doubt that the utter thrill of having a good scare is something that plenty of people clearly do enjoy.  If you are looking for a good adrenaline rush with plenty to get your heart pumping, “The Conjuring” is in theatres now.  Any guesses who will be the one on the back row, whimpering a little as she apprehensively peeks out from behind her hoodie, which already had been pulled almost completely over her head? Yes, this is scary stuff.  But more likely than not, we are still loving every minute of it.

Here's the official main trailer. Watch it if you dare.