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The Spooky Science of Horror Movies: Why Do We Enjoy Being Scared?

I find that the best kind of movies stay with me for a long while afterwards, often in the form of lingering images, thoughts, or feelings. Movies that successfully build gripping immersion, allowing you to completely lose yourself in their fabricated world, serve as one of my favourite forms of entertainment.

But what about when that world is downright terrifying?

Why would anyone want to lose themselves in a horror movie?

Midsommar (2019)

Not many movie genres can claim to be as polarising as horror — cinematic marmite. Unlike heart-warming romance or light-hearted comedy, horror movies are designed to stir feelings of terror, eliciting fear and dread. Nevertheless, there are countless cult classics within the horror genre, and in 2021, horror was the fourth highest-grossing film genre in the UK. There are plenty of subgenres to choose from, with the most popular being demonic possession (or supernatural horror), paranormal, monster, slasher, zombie, gore (or splatter), witchcraft, vampire (Twilight, anyone?), psychological, and even comedic horror.

As someone who absolutely loves a good horror movie (despite watching through my fingers a lot of the time), I wanted to answer the question: why are some of us addicted to the thrill of fear whilst others can't change the channel fast enough?

My top 3 horror movies: Talk To Me (2022), Midsommar (2019), and Get Out (2017).

The Thrill and Allure of Fear

Fear isn’t all bad; we actually rely on fear for protection from potential threats. When we detect a threat or feel scared, our bodies prepare us through the fight-or-flight response, with the fundamental goal of survival, despite the fictional source of the threat.

Talk To Me (2022)

Neurocinematics research, looking at the impact of watching movies on our minds, has found that jump scares increase activity in the amygdala, the almond-shaped part of our brain responsible for detecting and responding to danger. Visually, psychological horrors and those based on true stories are perceived as the scariest subgenres — it seems that unseen or implied threats are much more frightening to deal with!

And it isn’t just what we see (or don’t see) that’s important. Sound and musical score play a huge part in creating tension and suspense — think of the iconic shower scene from Psycho. Together, auditory and visual stimuli can tap into our innate instinct to survive, alerting our brain that we’re in imminent danger.

It is no coincidence that we can feel both excited and scared when watching horror movies. When the feeling of fear has passed, without having to confront any real threat, we feel that adrenaline rush, that surge of excitement that we survived (well done us)!

Get Out (2017)

Here are the three primary reasons why we keep going back:

  • Tension: This is what keeps us at the edge of our seats, that emotional strain, preparing for the next shock. Horror movies are typically great at building tension and anxiety within the audience. We enjoy the suspense, mystery, gore, shock, and bone-chilling terror — horror’s key ingredients!

  • Relevance: Horror movies are relevant in various ways, whether it’s a thread of social commentary, addressing the unknown, or grappling with the concept of death. They can be surprisingly relatable, especially when the story implores you to empathise with the protagonist(s) in more ways than one.

  • Unrealism: Ultimately, we know that horror movies are presenting a fabricated reality, that what we’re watching is meant for entertainment purposes. So even though our bodies are telling us otherwise, we know that we are in the clear when we leave the cinema.

When we experience "recreational" or "staged" fear, our brain releases dopamine, a feel-good hormone associated with feelings of pleasure, reward and motivation. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s this cocktail combination of fear and pleasure that increases our vigilance, our sense of accomplishment when we survive the scare, and our eagerness for the next one.

The beauty of horror movies is that they elicit such diverse reactions from different people. It's a genre that taps into our deepest fears and insecurities, allowing us to confront them in a safe environment – even if that environment involves gripping onto the person next to us for dear life, or jumping out of our seats and spilling popcorn everywhere.


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