top of page

The psychology of fear: Why people enjoy being scared

The psychology of fear: Why people enjoy being scared

Have you ever stopped to wonder why many people enjoy being scared so much so that there’s a whole holiday dedicated to the element of fear?

A study conducted by Concordia University, St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota, said the enjoyment some people get from fear is likely not from fear itself. Instead, the thrills stem from “the physical and emotional release that follows scary situations,” according to Seeker, a division of Discovery.

“Scary and thrilling situations release dopamine in the brain,” said Dr. Olubunmi Olatunji, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University. “For some individuals, this release can be exhilarating. As a result, some people will enjoy scary and risky situations, while others may find them aversive.”

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, acts as a chemical messenger, communicating messages between nerve cells in your brain and the rest of your body. Also known as the “feel-good” hormone, dopamine is made by your adrenal gland and the neurotransmitter is known to give you a sense of pleasure; the human brain is hard-wired to find behaviors that release dopamine. The more dopamine released, the better you feel and you begin to seek more of that feeling.

You may have noticed that a lot of the horror stories and media you consume come with relevance, or elements that consumers will identify with. For Zack Hall, programming and education coordinator and in house media producer at Nashville’s Belcourt Theater, it’s something that’s incredibly effective.

“How safe do you feel going to the grocery store right now? How safe do you feel going to church…monstrous things exist, and we’ve seen evidence of it, and we’ve been reminded of it every single day for a decade now,” Hall said.

Scary and risky situations present themselves in different formats. For example, some people enjoy reading horror novels, some people enjoy watching horror films, and some like to immerse themselves in a real-life experience by going on ghost tours or entering haunted houses. Regardless of your choice, brain activity is known to increase in tense, thrilling situations.

“When the anticipation is building, regions of the brain involved in visual and auditory perception become more active given the need to attend for cues of threat in the environment,” Dr. Olatunji said. “In the presence of the threat, brain activity is more evident in regions involved in emotion processing, threat evaluation, and decision making.”

For some, their go-to source for horror entertainment is the movie theater. Hall is one of the lead coordinators for the Belcourt’s “12 Hours of Terror”. The event is just like it sounds; on one October weekend before Halloween, horror fans near and far flock to the Belcourt Theater in Hillsboro Village from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m., watching 12 hours worth of horror movies. According to Hall, movies offer a way for fans to cope with subconscious fears in an enjoyable, safe way.

“I think movies offer a sort of safe space to experience a lot of things that don’t work themselves out in our day-to-day lives that may be secretly eating at us or subconsciously eating at us,” Hall said. “Movies make our greatest fears manifest in a safe space where we can actually cope with them. And I think the way that horror is going right now, I think it’s on an upswing; we’re going to see a lot of really great horror movies coming out of the immense cultural anxieties we have built in over the last couple of years.”

Speaking of safety, horror movies and haunted houses may not be some people’s forte, as the element of surprise that comes via jump scare and gory images may be hard to stomach. For the readers, Dr. Olatunji said reading offers sort of a safety net.

“It may be that reading offers an additional layer of visual protection while still being able to experience the intended sensations,” Dr. Olatunji said. “

Lastly, are you the type of person who is obsessed with true crime, whether it be podcasts, documentaries, tv shows, etc.? Even the non-horror fan can find themselves becoming invested in learning about true crime stories. The answer, according to Dr. Olatunji, is all in the human instinct.

“The reality is that it is in our nature to be highly attuned to crime, and we instinctively want to know the who, what, when and where,” Dr. Olatunji said.

The cultural and societal interest in horror entertainment appears to have etched itself in the foundation of who human beings are as a species, along with the unique individual interests and traits of others.

38 views0 comments


bottom of page