Why we like scary things: The science of recreational fear

November 1, 2022

Fully 62% of people think it can be fun to be scared, according to results of a survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Tubi. “People enjoy getting scared, especially at Halloween time,” said a spokesperson for Tubi, an over-the-top content platform and ad-supported streaming service owned by Fox.

What’s more, from peek-a-boo to Halloween haunted houses, research shows that recreational fear can teach us to face scary situations.

Having fun with fear is an “extremely important tool for learning,” Mathias Clasen, director of the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University in Denmark, recently told The Washington Post, adding,  “We learn something about the dangers of the world. We learn something about our own responses: What does it feel like to be afraid? How much fear can I take?”

A case in point: Horror movies have gotten more popular. And in one survey of more than 1,000 Americans, conducted by Clasen, 55% described themselves as horror fans. Horror, though, is not the only genre that is described by respondents as scary fun, he said.

Many people who would not consider themselves fans of fear enjoy true-crime podcasts and novels featuring violence and murder. Others may enjoy nature documentaries about apex predators such as sharks and bears.

Even babies like being a little spooked. Peek-a-boo is “an infant jump scare,” Clasen said. Classic childhood games of tag and hide-and-seek can be thought of as simulations of predator vs. prey. “I don’t think I’ve yet come across a person who did not enjoy some kind of recreational fear,” he said.

So why do we like it? It is a combination of an adrenaline rush and an opportunity to learn about dealing with scary situations in a safe environment, researchers say. Clasen and his colleagues identified three broad types of horror fans: “adrenaline junkies,” “white knucklers” and “dark copers.”

Adrenaline junkies get a mood boost from the recreational fear experience and try to maximize that experience, such as by actively focusing on scary events or allowing themselves to scream.

When we are afraid, our endocrine system releases adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol to help prepare our body for physical action. We know the “Halloween” movie franchise’s Michael Myers is not real, but our brain still responds as if he were a knife-wielding threat. One brain imaging study found that watching horror movies activates threat-response brain regions such as the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and insula as if the danger were real.

After this rush, many people experience an elevated moodOne study examined how 262 adults felt before and after they entered an extreme haunted house. Fifty percent of people said they felt better after the visit. Brain recordings before and after showed that those whose mood improved had a smaller neural response to subsequent stressors, which is associated with the post-haunt high.

The high, though, does not motivate some horror fans. For white knucklers and dark copers, feeling fear for fun is more about self-learning and self-efficacy, said Coltan Scrivner, a research scientist at Aarhus University’s Recreational Fear Lab. “They’re able to challenge their fears, challenge themselves to face their fears.”

White knucklers try to “lean out” of the experience by trying to find the situation funny or lessening their exposure to the scary stimuli, said Scrivner. Not because they do not enjoy the experience but because “people are always trying to hit their sweet spot,” he said.

Scrivner and Clasen’s research at haunted houses found there is an inverted-U pattern to how much fear people find enjoyable. Too little fear and it is boring; too much, and it produces more anxiety than fun. And our sweet spot is probably individual.

Dark copers, the third type of horror fan, seem to use scary media to help them deal with anxieties about the world or their own lives by focusing on a more concrete threat.

By pinning down what is causing us to feel fear and dread, people can have more control over their emotional state. Over time, by playing with this fear and anxiety, people could “implicitly learn some emotion regulation skills for how to feel because you’re expressing them and feeling them in a safe place,” Scrivner said.

And there is evidence that regularly playing with fear can help when real threats arise. At the beginning of the pandemic, horror fans were more psychologically resilient, Scrivner and Clasen found. Playing with fear helps us learn what our body does under pressure and how to “make it through in one piece whether the stakes are fairly high or are fairly low,” Clasen said.

Research contact: @washingtonpost