Why Do We Love to be Scared?
As Halloween approaches and we are surrounded by haunted houses, zombie corn mazes, Wasco clown sightings, and horror movie marathons, it all begs the question: why do we seek out things that make us feel downright terrified? Why do we root for the “bad guy”? What pleasure exists in fear?
My high school English teacher used to say that this curious phenomenon is a way for people to get in touch with their “dark side”. Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe is still being read by school-age children all over the country, so many years after his death, and there is an undeniable allure to his stories. My former teacher would argue that we are, in some conscious or unconscious way, vicariously living through the characters in these stories. Thanks to the characters in these these stories, we get to safely act out on these horrid fantasies that we would never engage in in our own lives as a type of cathartic release of emotion.
If we think existentially, it can be argued that we seek out these fear-inducing stimuli to get in touch with our humanity and thus, the inevitability of our own death. It is a way that we can process our own death without outwardly thinking in those psychically painful ways. When we are watching horror movies, we experience these feelings through the perspective of another, thereby not facing death ourselves per se, but facing it nonetheless vis a vis someone else’s experience.
Everyone has felt, in some form or another, that euphoric high we experience after we come out unscathed after a particularly scary experience, such as when we put ourselves in terrifying situations for fun around Halloween. We feel relieved, elated, giddy, and satisfied. Adrenaline is still pumping through our bodies, and we might feel lightheaded or shaky. We weren’t sure we’d be able to make it through this experience, but here we are on the other side, laughing it all off! This can boost self-esteem and self-confidence when we prove to ourselves, our harshest critics, that we have faced our fears.
Why do we like to get scared in groups – with other people around us? Well, an obvious answer for that question involves the principle of safety in numbers; when we are feeling terrified, we can turn to the person next to us for solace. However, there might be more to that than we first realize. Social psychology talks about the two-factor theory of emotion, which states that when we are physiologically aroused (like what happens in our bodies when we feel excited, nervous, or scared), we tend to think that this arousal comes from something in our immediate environment – what is all around us. Our body gives us physiological signs, then we cognitively label these signs (“I feel scared”). If we can’t figure out where our physiological arousal is coming from, we search our environment for the answer. When we go through a haunted house with a group of our best friends, the experience can afterward make us feel closer to our friends emotionally. Physiological arousal can intensify emotional arousal, and misattribution of arousal can occur. If you want to feel more in love with your significant other, try running through the zombie corn maze with her or him. The strong physiological arousal stemming from the fear may in fact increase your attraction to your partner!
All in all, I don’t have the ultimate answer as to why exactly we love to be scared, but I hope I’ve given you something to chew on the next time you put on that horror movie marathon (besides your fingernails, of course).
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons – Graeme Maclean
– Kristen Martinez, M.Ed., Ed.S., LMHCA, NCC Therapist in Seattle