Do you like scary movies? Of course you do. That’s why you’re here, reading this article, dressed as Ghostface from Scream, polishing your knives in anticipation of the new movie. But perhaps a more interesting question for Ghostface to have asked 26 years ago is not whether you do like scary movies, but why do you like scary movies? Why are we so drawn towards an experience which make us feel so much fear and revulsion, that is tailor-made to cause us as much distress as possible?
“People who are high in sensation-seeking tend to get pleasure from extreme feelings,” explains Coltan Scrivner, a researcher at the University of Chicago who specialises in the psychology of morbid curiosity, “and horror movies are one way for them to do that. But also they are only a sub-portion of the people who enjoy horror.”
Most people, according to Scrivner, are ‘white knucklers’, people who are genuinely afraid of horror movies but still enjoy them. “These are the people who feel as if they learn something about themselves through scary experiences,” he says.
“This matches up with data which shows that kids who engage in thrilling or scary play might be at a lower risk for things like anxiety later in life, because they’re learning how to navigate negative emotions, high arousal, and learning that they can get through those situations.”
This leads into one of the more popular theories in the field, which is that horror allows us to rehearse scary and dangerous situations in a safe space. “Anxiety and fear are feelings that people tend to avoid in everyday life,” says Scrivner, “so we don’t have a lot of practice at it. But experiencing those emotions in a playful way allows you to feel in control. It’s like a flight simulator.”
Some of the dangers and fears that we rehearse in horror have their roots in primal fear. A popular horror film technique, for example, is to mimic dangerous, natural sounds that instinctively signify danger – like The Exorcist, which mixed recordings of angry bees and people screaming.
“There’s a lot of studies showing that people are able to, without any experience, pay attention to snakes more than other kinds of dangers,” says Scrivner, who again compares horror to the games we played as …….