Why do we like getting scared?

Norman Bates is silently lurking behind the white shower curtain. He tip-toes closer to his vulnerable victim, clutching a kitchen knife. Then he snatches the edge of the curtain – it all happens so quickly – pulls it open to expose his victim and slashes her to smithereens. As this scene plays out on screen, those watching love every minute of “Psycho’s” suspense, even if it scares the living hell out of them. 

It’s funny really. Humans are designed to experience fear so we know when it’s time to get the hell out of dodge and avoid getting hurt (thanks evolution)! Yet, many people love a good ol’ horror flick, which may grant an individual with two hours of fear-inducing stress, if the movie is good. 

Humans also take scaring themselves a step further when building giant haunted houses filled with ghouls and bloody clowns to bring their scary movie nightmares to life. Take the survival-style haunt McKamey Manor as an extreme example. According to the haunts website – which features a page titled “You really don’t want to do this” – people who want to participate must have proof of medical insurance and physical and mental wellness tests before being considered to see the attraction. McKamey Manor is rumored to have 24,000 people on its waitlist. So people truly love to get scared. But why?

According to a study on voluntary arousing negative experiences (VANE) by the American Psychological Association, “negative stimuli might be experienced as positive in the context of voluntary engagement,” meaning fear is welcomed by humans as long as it is under their control and on their own time. After participants of the study visited a haunt attraction, many reported having a better mood after leaving the haunted house than they did prior to entering it. 

“Together, these data suggest that VANE reduces neural reactivity following stress,” read the abstract of the study. “This result could explain post-VANE euphoria and may be adaptive in that it could help individuals to cope with subsequent stressors.” 

It seems for some folks, visiting their local haunted attraction or turning the lights low to watch a scary movie is equivalent to a spa day. This idea of controlling fear is really valuable to us, and it lets people vent out their worries in a scary fantasyland instead of dealing with them in real life.

Some with anxiety disorders find scary movies to be particularly calming when trying to facilitate their nerves. In a report from “Vice,” Dr. Mathias Clasen, who studies the psychological effects of horror flicks, commented on this phenomena: “Exposure to horror films can be gratifying when the negative emotions caused by the film are manageable.” 

Sometimes those with anxiety disorders find their real-life fears to be very stressful, but they can take comfort in watching a scary movie that helps their fears escape without having to specifically focus on them. Instead, they get to focus on Freddie and Jason or the demon living in Anabelle. (Seems like a fair trade, switching out the pain and panic for a two-hour gore compilation!)

Whether one experiences anxiety in daily life or not, getting voluntarily scared is simply – exciting! The jolts and jitters one’s body feels after letting out a shriek, the laughter afterwards, being totally transported from the real world for a while – it’s downright therapeutic. So turn off all the lights, scroll to the horror section, and let fear transform into fun. 

California State University, Monterey Bay students can login to HBO Max or Philo for free to watch their favorite horror flicks this October. Visit csumb.edu/housing/tv-services for more information. 

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