I’ve never seen “Halloween” (none of them). Or “Scream” or “Saw” or “The Blair Witch Project” or “It”. My kids know better than to suggest – I’ve embarrassed them too often by squeaking loudly in the theater when a little scare pops up out of nowhere. (Yes, the whole theater always laughs at me.)
I don’t go to haunted Halloween houses either, although I spent years creating one for neighborhood kids as part of my son’s birthday party. Most didn’t find it very scary because it wasn’t.
Yet people all around me are screaming for Halloween scares – loudly, with utter devotion and tremendous joy – and then they go back to get more.
“I don’t think it has to do with people like being afraid,” said Glenn Sparks, a professor at Purdue University’s Brian Lamb School of Communication. He has studied the effects of terrifying mass media for years.
“Fear is by definition a negative emotion,” said Sparks. “When we are afraid of something, our well-being is threatened and people don’t enjoy it. What they enjoy are things that are associated with that experience and usually occur after the fear has ended.”
One reason you may be drawn to scary experiences is the satisfaction of defeating a threat. Take roller coasters, for example.
“You may not enjoy thinking about the car falling and knocking you to the ground,” said Sparks. “But when you’ve finished the ride and can look back at the height of the roller coaster and say to your friends, ‘I did it, I did it’, that’s fun.”
Mastering the eerie haunted house is similarly satisfying, Sparks said. And when you overcome your fear with good friends, it can turn your excitement into an experience you want to repeat.
“We call this a stimulus transfer effect,” he explained. “When you come out of a scary movie or the haunted house and laugh and talk to friends, that pleasant feeling you have can be heightened by the excitement left by your fear.”
The sensation seeker
We are all set to search for new things around us, a holdover from our old days of searching for danger.
“Humans have an innate survival system,” said Joanne Cantor, a retired professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin. “It’s like driving past a wrecked car – you don’t want to see it, but you can’t help but look at it.
“Then there are others who like to play with those emotions and take risks,” says Cantor, who has been researching the emotional responses of adults and children to mass media for 40 years, including fear.
“In psychology, we call this a sensational personality,” Sparks explained. “It will be the people who do skydiving and bungee jumping who may be looking for threatening entertainment as well.
“They may have a very low arousal set-point, so they constantly crave experiences that will increase that arousal and flood the system with adrenaline,” he said.
The fear cat
Okay, that explains a good bit about why some people love to be scared (or think they are). But why am I so averse to fear?
“First of all, there’s a huge gender difference in who loves this stuff and who finds it horrific,” Cantor said. “Boys like it better than girls.”
That’s likely due to the different treatment boys and girls were given when they were growing up, she added.
“Girls are more likely to admit they’re scared while boys are taught to say, ‘I’m fine,'” she said. “Boys may not be as ready to admit that they are as afraid as they really feel.”
In fact, through her research, she found that almost anyone – including boys – can tell of an experience with a terrifying film that haunted them long after it ended.
“About 90% have something to say,” said Cantor. “It’s very, very common to have at least one creepy thing that really sticks with you.”
(Aha. Mine was the movie “Alien”. To this day I can see the * thing * ripping open the poor man’s stomach.)
The role of youth
If you were young when that scary moment happened, the more likely they will stick with you and shape your future preferences, Cantor said.
“Children at a very young age think that what’s on the screen is actually there,” she said. “If a vicious animal walks towards you on the screen, a young child will be scared.”
Due to the different ways in which younger children see and understand the world, parents may not initially understand how scared their child is, added Cantor.
“It’s important to calm a scared child down and help them cope,” she said.
Little by little, kids learn the difference between fantasy and reality, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to overcome their fears, Cantor said. Unfortunately, from the news, they learn that terrible things are happening in the real world.
“There are a lot of things they see in horror films that could actually happen,” Cantor said. “Freddy Krueger may not be real, but there are ‘murderous madmen’ in the world.”
Eventually, when a child is very empathetic and relates to the characters on the screen, they will be more afraid and the fear can linger much longer.
“You could feel the fear even more intensely and that will stay with you all your life,” said Cantor. “Our research shows that a really difficult experience can literally last forever.”
Cantor’s early research, for example, showed that people who saw the movie “Jaws” before their 13th
“This is the unfortunate consequence of this really deep traumatic feeling that is just stored in the brain,” said Cantor. “All these physiological responses: heart rate, blood pressure, anxiety; as you get older you say, ‘How can that be?’ but your brain won’t shut up. “
This is an updated version of a 2019 story.