The Lure of Horror

Why do we love being scared? Is it the way our hearts pound in our chests? The mixture of curiosity and revulsion when we see a monster or a ghost? Or is it something even darker? Like the disturbing themes portrayed in popular culture? Are we drawn to genres like horror because we recognize them as a shadowy reflection of ourselves?

Since primitive humans first gathered around campfires to tell stories, we’ve been trying to scare each other. In 2021, historians at the British Museum identified the world’s oldest drawing of a ghost. Carved into an ancient Babylonian clay tablet dating back 3,500 years, it lays out specific instructions for getting rid of unwanted spirits. Early mythologies are filled with these kinds of terrifying creatures. Often, these monsters were intent on punishing humans for some perceived misdeed. 

The story of Medusa tells of a woman who turned men to stone in retribution for her own defilement. African legends speak of creatures called impundulu, vampiric lightning birds that summon storms and steal unprotected children. The oni of Japanese myth are terrible, flesh-eating trolls who often bring about disease or calamity. Many of these early horror stories are rooted in folklore and function as cautionary tales. They are meant either to deter or encourage particular behaviors. Abuse and murder will result in a vengeful haunting by a poltergeist. Honoring an ancestor’s grave will keep their soul at peace. Even as society has moved on from using these legends as guidance, the need for horror still remains. 

Our modern idea of horror emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries with the rise of Gothic literature. Novels like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Dracula by Bram Stoker paved the way for a new genre devoted solely to terror. Unlike older folk tales which primarily served as moral lessons, these stories were written with the explicit intention of frightening their audiences. They incorporated dark, claustrophobic environments characterized by fear, decay and the constant threat of the supernatural. Gothic literature set itself apart with an intense focus on how the present is always haunted by the past. More than two centuries later, modern audiences still love to be scared. We spend hours on YouTube watching creepy videos, gather outside of haunted houses hoping to run out screaming and flock to theaters to see the latest horror flick. It’s no surprise that John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place Part II earned nearly $300 million worldwide at the box office. But of course, there’s no better testament to horror’s popularity than Halloween, an entire holiday celebrating all the things that make our spines tingle. The same year that A Quiet Place Part II broke pandemic-era opening weekend box office records, it’s estimated that Halloween spending hit an all-time high, surpassing $10 billion dollars.

So why do we like being scared?

To answer this question, we need to understand the nature of fear itself. In a basic sense, fear is an evolutionary adaptation that allows us to rapidly identify and react to physical danger to increase our chances of survival. On a neurological level, it engages our amygdala, also known as the fear center of the brain. This cluster of neurons essentially functions as an alarm bell, controlling our emotional responses and creating feelings of anxiety, aggression and fear in reaction to perceived threats. Other parts of the brain involved in rapid decision-making and the encoding of long-term memories come online during this process as well. These not only help us to quickly respond to a situation, but to also clearly remember the incident later. That way if we ever find ourselves in similar circumstances, we know how to react. For example, if shouting and making a lot of noise is able to scare off a lion that has been stalking you, the next time you run into one, you’ll remember to do the same.

This is why generally, the more emotionally intense an experience is, the better we remember it. It’s how our brains learn what to seek out and what to avoid. This applies not only to moments of intense joy such as a graduation or surprise party, but also potentially frightening experiences like riding a roller coaster. Although scary at the time, in hindsight these events can actually be remembered as incredibly fun and pleasurable. This reframing makes us want to seek out and repeat these experiences again and again. Another reason we may like being scared is because it releases a host of chemicals that our bodies naturally crave.

Fear activates what’s known as our sympathetic nervous system, a complex network of nerves that controls some of the body’s unconscious actions. When triggered, this system initiates an intricate physiological process commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. If you’ve ever experienced sweaty palms, shortness of breath, increased heart rate and a sinking sensation in your stomach, then you know what this feels like. During fight-or-flight, the body is flooded with a complex chemical cocktail that includes everything from adrenaline and endorphins to serotonin and even oxytocin. This particular recipe helps maximize our chances for survival by initiating various physical responses, such as moving blood from the extremities to larger muscle groups where they are needed. Interestingly, every one of these chemicals is also associated with other more traditionally pleasant emotions like happiness, surprise and excitement. So what on the surface may appear like an undesirable experience can actually turn out to be extremely enjoyable.

It makes sense then why people with particularly efficient neurological reward systems tend to like being scared more. The thrill of a slasher film produces an immediate pleasurable rush of adrenaline, much in the same way as skydiving. It’s important to understand, though, that there’s such a thing as too much fear. If something is terrifying enough, it can trigger the development of phobias, an extreme and irrational fear of a particular object or situation. If experienced repeatedly over long periods of time, it can lead to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. But when encountered in a safe, positive setting, fear can actually be fun. Think about it like this: Almost drowning in the ocean when you were a child - bad. Watching Jaws and jumping out of your seat when the shark eats the late-night skinny dipper at the beginning of the film - good.

There’s also another reason why we are drawn to horror, perfectly summed up in a statement by celebrated author and professional boogeyman Stephen King. “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”  And he’s right. A 2021 study found that horror fans fared much better psychologically during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic than those who said they didn’t like being scared. It’s speculated that people who regularly expose themselves to terrifying situations, even fictional ones, may be better at regulating fear. Because the more time spent in this heightened emotional state, the more desensitized the brain becomes, reducing its instinctual responses in favor of rational decision-making.

Therapists use this all the time in exposure therapy, a treatment specifically designed for anxiety conditions  including obsessive compulsive disorder, PTSD, and various phobias. It  works by retraining the amygdala through repeated activation. By encountering a feared object or situation over and over, the severity of the brain’s response is lessened over time. Think of it like exercise. The first time you go to the gym, your body is going to be extremely sore and achy afterwards, but with each repeated visit, your soreness decreases. Your muscles become accustomed to the stress. The same goes for your brain and fear. As the brain recognizes that the threat no longer exists or wasn’t even real in the first place, it transitions from its fight-or-flight response to a state of rest. This shift creates feelings of relief and euphoria that can alleviate anxiety and even boost self-confidence. Over time, exposure therapy moves the patient’s neurological reaction away from the amygdala back to the parts of the brain that control higher cognition. This reduces the intensity of instinctual gut reactions, allowing for complex planning and logical decision making. For example, if someone is afraid of sharks, therapists will have the patient think about sharks, visit an aquarium or even go deep sea diving with the help of virtual reality. With every repeated exposure, their fear response decreases, eventually causing it to recede.

Horror has been shown to be similarly effective at doing this. The formula of suspense and resolution common to the genre mimics the exact neurological process one goes through when encountering a fear-inducing stimulus. This could be why some people who suffer from anxiety disorders really enjoy horror. Trauma survivors and victims of abuse in particular might even benefit from it. The internet is filled with anecdotal accounts of people with PTSD and generalized anxiety feeling a sense of relief and calm after watching a scary movie or walking through a haunted house. Aside from relief, this attraction to horror may also have something to do with a phenomenon known as repetition compulsion, the tendency for trauma survivors to seek out similar situations.

Humans find comfort in what’s familiar and predictable even when it’s actively harmful to us. This can look like a person returning to a toxic relationship, or a war veteran watching footage of the battle in which they were wounded. It’s the classic “the devil you know is better than the angel you don’t”. Potential reasons for this behavior range from low self-esteem to an aversion to change, but one explanation is that the brain is attempting to achieve a form of mastery over the situation. We never want to feel powerless again, so we repeatedly enter the same scenarios in order to hopefully gain control over them. And as it turns out, control plays a big part in regulating fear. A 2018 study found many people enjoyed scary movies exactly because they created these feelings of mastery and control. 

Horror then can be incredibly beneficial for trauma survivors by allowing them to delve into a world that is alien but familiar at the same time, without reentering the same toxic situations in real life. This creates an avenue for recontextualizing traumatic experiences in a safer environment. It’s a form of exposure therapy, a continual process of confrontation, coping and relief. This may actually account for 2021’s rapid uptick in Halloween-related sales and the success of recent horror films like A Quiet Place Part II. We now have an entire population looking for ways to cope with having lived through a global pandemic, and hoping they will be better in control if history ever repeats itself. But what happens when we don’t face our fears, or when we try to hide the parts of ourselves that we’d rather not think about?

20th-century psychologist Carl Jung proposed that every human mind contains a shadow, an unconscious aspect of our personalities that doesn’t conform to the picture we have of ourselves in our heads. It’s an emotional blind spot, a personification of everything a person refuses to acknowledge about themselves. An unconventional interest might invite mockery. Preferences in sexuality could result in social rejection or even physical harm. A traumatic life event in your past might make others look at you differently. So instead of expressing these parts of ourselves, we repress them, burying them deep beneath the surface. Yet, at our core, we still naturally seek out these parts of ourselves because the mind craves integration, the process of assimilating various elements of our personalities into our concept of self. We don’t want to see ourselves as a disparate collection of divided pieces forever at war, but as a unified whole.

If a person fails to do this, the shadow threatens to overtake their personality, coming out in malevolent and often violent ways. This is a situation best represented in the novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where a scientist literally transforms himself in order to indulge in vices minus the consequences. Is it any wonder then that Gothic literature first took off during the Victorian era, a period defined by intense societal repression? Or that its defining theme involves the past returning to haunt the present? Stories act as gateways into our unconscious urges and desires, allowing us to safely explore them. For some, this may be vicariously living out an unspoken fantasy. For others, it can be an opportunity to confront past traumas and hopefully grow beyond them. By its nature, horror includes an element of evil often personified by figures like Dracula, Leatherface and Hannibal Lecter. It’s this evil that must be defeated. In the same way, horror forces us to confront our shadows. It challenges us to grow and begin a process towards becoming stronger and more confident individuals.

At its core, fear is a survival mechanism. It’s meant to help us overcome threats and keep us alive. From a psychological perspective, the most effective way to do this isn’t to fight or run from the parts of our personality or our past that we don’t like, but instead to incorporate them into ourselves. By doing this we create the fittest, most robust individual possible. Horror then is about completeness. It’s about feeling whole. Some love it for the thrills, the spectacle of blood and gore. Others use it as an outlet to deal with and overcome a prior negative event, recontextualizing it and regaining some form of control. But for all of us, horror represents an opportunity to confront our fears. Only by doing this can we come to understand the ghosts of our past and hopefully accept the darker parts of ourselves.

“He who has overcome his fears will truly be free.” - Aristotle