The Psychology of Horror | Dissecting Fear

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“Human beings have been telling scary stories to each other since primitive man drew pictographs on cave walls. I think they help us confront our fears and uncertainties in a safe way.”
― Brian Keene

 

We’re back with more of the Dissecting Fear series, a series of articles where I’m attempting to shed some light on the nature of horror and fear itself.


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Today we’re going to look at…

The Psychology of Horror

In spite of all the theories and arguments that we discussed last time, the fact remains that we don’t really know why we enjoy horror. What we do know to some extent, is the things that happen in our minds when we experience fear and some of the psychological mechanisms we use to cope with it.

Let’s start by talking about Andrew Weaver, a professor at Indiana University, whose studies indicate that we immerse ourselves in the experience of fear knowing that we have mastery over the situation.

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Watching horror films is a form of entertainment, an adrenaline rush that keeps us in a safe environment. We want to experience these frightening things in a way that leaves us some control over them because we don’t have control over the scary things that happen in real life. But if our experience is a mediated one in a theater or at home, we know it’s going to end and that at some level we’re safe. We can’t be hurt by it.

This can further be supported by Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands who edited a collection of essays addressing why we are drawn to depictions of violence. Goldstein states that we have the ability to pay attention as much or as little as we care to – during violent entertainment – in order to control what effect it has on us, emotional and otherwise.

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The positive aspect is that this controlled engagement provides us with an avenue to overcome stress, which brings us back to Aristotle’s catharsis theory. The sudden surge of adrenaline brought by fear provides us with dopamine.

The amount of dopamine released to the brain will depend on how our brains reacts to fear and our ability to cope with it.  Dopamine induces both desire and dread in adjacent regions of the brain, a thin line that might shed some light in why some of us enjoy horror and others simply don’t.

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Reliving these experiences many times promotes a better control over reality and prepares us to be more alert and to better handle real-life threatening situations; a sort of safe place to practice survival skills.

If we look back at David J. Skal’s theory again, it strongly suggests that we use these movies as a vehicle for facing the unknown and, more importantly, to cope with the dangers in our world.

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Other findings concerning human behavior suggest that every one of us processes fearful stimuli differently, each person’s ability to separate reality from fiction will determine the impact on their emotional memory.

This is heavily supported by a study made in 2008 by University of Bonn researchers where they found a gene that affects a chemical in the brain that plays a part in why horror films make some people scream in terror while others enjoy the suspense and the gore.

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If we take into consideration not only that some people may be either psychologically or genetically better suited to enjoy high levels of physiological arousal, but also and more importantly that humans deliberately inflict cruelty or altruism upon others, a conundrum that has been studied for centuries and that even Sigmund Freud tried to reconcile, we have evidence that points to our fascination for fear and lust for blood as being instinctually based, biologically programmed and reinforced by stimuli in our environments, especially as a signal of our capacity to survive.

Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist from New York University has mapped out neuron by neuron how the brain’s fear system works and says that the complex human brain with its enormous capacity for thinking, reasoning, and just plain musing, allows us to worry in ways other animals can’t. This means that fear is not merely a biological reaction, but an emotion derived from both deep-seeded evolutionary factors as well as newly learned cautions. Fear is a response from conversations between the brain’s primitive amygdala and the more recently acquired cortex that allows us, humans, to interpret an event and respond with an emotion.

In the end, it is through surrogate blood – observing others’ suffering and demise – that we come to terms with our own mortality. Consequently, all the sensations caused by these films, books, TV shows, comics, etc. become a pleasurable awareness of the fragility of life. Especially when we are able to put some distance between the violence and ourselves, between the horror and the fascination. Then comes a mediated experience that lets us enjoy those feelings.

 

Stay tuned for the next chapter of Dissecting Fear where I’ll be looking at the consequences of experiencing fear on a regular basis. Stay scared!

This is the place where I happily share my experiences and passions.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Dylan says:

    Wow–incredible insight! My blog post was also on entertainment and how music can provide an escape or safe haven from the looming of death. Very powerful stuff on why people enjoy horror while others shy away from it. Would love to see this expanded upon in the future… some insight from horror directors would be amaaaazing!

    • eduardo says:

      Hi Dylan, thank you both for reading and for giving me a great idea! I’ll do some research into directors and writers, expect some of that soon, there will be more Dissecting Fear in the future for sure.

  2. I love this! I’ve always been drawn to scary movies… and I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head. Although I’m scared of things like heights, I’m more than comfortable walking into the haunted houses at Canada’s Wonderland in October. And it’s definitely the control aspect. The fear of falling is something that I have no control over.

    • eduardo says:

      I need a guide of the good Canadian haunted houses from you Mackenzie, I missed all of them this year and I need to fix that. I am super happy to hear that you like horror films!

  3. Fridha says:

    It’s very interesting how people processes fearful diferently, for me it depends on the movie I could get a bit paranoid for some hours after watching a horror movie but I feel really curious about how horror directors can create crazy stories on their minds, they must have a great imagination and amazing nightmares to feel inspired; this is the only reason why I like to watch some scary movies

    Great post Eduardo!!

  4. jennifernug says:

    Great post Eduardo! As per the usual.

    I love the line where you said “we immerse ourselves in the experience of fear knowing that we have mastery over the situation”, because you’re absolutely right. I have never felt in control in a situation of horror and therefore avoid it at all costs. It also can simply be a situation where you’re nervous about something and experience it to find it’s not so bad. You’re taking control of it at that point.

    Keep up the awesome work!

    • eduardo says:

      Thank you, Jen! We humans have an obsession for being “in control” because in reality we control absolutely nothing and that scares us more than anything. And that is where horror fiction enters. Keep coming back, thanks for your comment.

  5. Gabi Betancourt says:

    Great post Edu!
    I just personally can’t watch any horror movie. I just can’t separate reality from fiction and I just scream like a baby during a horror movie.

    • eduardo says:

      LOL Gabi. That’s one of the main points of study regarding horror experiences, the ability of the mind to separate fiction from reality. Challenge yourself and watch more of these movies, you’ll end up loving them!

  6. Really interesting topic of post Ed- I’ve never been a big fan of horror movies, I always found the acting to be terrible and I guess I didn’t enjoy that sensation of fear… maybe I just haven’t seen the right horror movies.. any suggestions? Regardless I think this post was a unique way to look at this phenomena… very interesting regardless of someones taste towards the subject. Awesome.

    • eduardo says:

      Hi Jordan, thank you! Sometimes acting is bad, that’s undeniable. Sometimes it’s intentional, most often not. It’s part of the charm of some movies, but if you see the “serious” horror, acting is on par with any drama movie out there. Give something like The Conjuring, The Babadook or The Ring (if you haven’t already seen that one), I’m sure you’ll like them as they offer above average horror. I appreciate the nice words!

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