Most everyone loves a great ghost or horror story. In fact, roughly 100 new horror movies are released every year – grossing more than $2 billion – it seems we just can’t seem to scare ourselves enough! But why do you think millions of people decide to scare themselves silly each year?
To explain why, we first need to look back to our ancestors. According to Lawton (2013), our ancestors lived in a very dangerous environment. About 2.5 million years ago, there were at least 18 predators that preyed on humans on the savannahs of East Africa, most of them attacking at night. Although we don’t know exactly how many of our ancestors died as a result of attacks from predators, 1 in 10 current day members of the Aché Tribe of Paraguay are killed by jaguars, nearly always at night.
So our fear, especially of the dark, has very deep roots and has left deep scars on our human memory.Our reaction to fear is the “fight or flight” response – our pupils dilate, our heart races and blood rushes to our muscles to prepare for the coming fight or retreat. This response is what we experience when we feel fear. The fear response happens as a “hair trigger,” according to Lawton (2013), “because the cost of a false alarm is far lower than the cost of failing to respond” at all.
Even today, we often go into “high alert” when we see a spider or hear crackling leaf “footsteps” in the dark. Is it much of a leap, then, that scary stories and horror movies can elicit the same fear response? Yet, why do we keep doing it?
The answer lies in the relief we experience when we “survive” such an attack (or find ourselves alive at the end of a horror movie!). This was tested with a woman known as SM who was unable to experience fear because of damage to her brain. She watched a series of clips from horror movies, but instead of fear, she reported that she felt the clips were exciting and entertaining, suggesting that beneath the fear of horror movies, we can experience more rewarding emotions. We “learn” that we don’t need to fear everything in our environment, which, in turn, allows us to focus more on what we perceive to be the real threats.
The primary reason we continue to tell ghost stories or return to horror movies, again and again, is that we get to experience the thrill of fear at the same time that we know we are safe. We have learned that scaring ourselves makes us jump in our seats or our heart pound out of our chests, yet we also know we are relatively safe by the campfire or in the movie theater. We, unlike our ancestors, get to experience the fear and live to tell about it!
Is it simply human nature that we have evolved to enjoy the feelings associated with fear, or is it perhaps as Stephen King suggests, that “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones”?
What do you think? Why do you love horror movies (or to scare yourself silly)? I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Dr. Carol A. Pollio
Lawton, G. (30 November 2013). Fright night (Why do we love to scare ourselves stupid?). New Scientist, pp. 43-45.