Why Do So Many People Like Horror Movies?

That adrenaline rush from fear is only a small part of horror's appeal.

Horror movies are scary and sometimes gross. They can make you think about death and fear for your life. Still, they can give the experience of fun fear, or recreational fear—when fear and enjoyment collide.

For many of us, horror movies are a blast—the best way to spend a Friday night, especially in October, when ghosts, gore, and the macabre rule the month.

So what gives? Why do so many individuals go out of their way and even pay good money to consume frightening entertainment? Read on to learn more.

Reasons You May Enjoy Horror Movies

There's little research about people and their enjoyment of horror movies. Still, that enjoyment may come down to how connected or disconnected movie watchers are from the horror action.

You're Emotionally Drawn to Them

Horror movies are all about the emotions for some people. One review suggested that empathy and fearfulness were linked to people's affinity for horror movies. People tended to enjoy or desire to watch horror movies if they had low levels of empathy and fearfulness.

Experiencing suspense could also tap into how people like horror films. In suspenseful horror movies, watchers can experience negative emotions regarding the threat. Those emotions can be replaced with positive ones when the threat is resolved, making the suspense disappear.

Being Scared Can Give You a Thrilling Rush

Even though horror movies are fake, watching them can trigger a genuine fight-or-flight response.

“The brain kind of forgets in that moment that what it’s seeing is not real danger and then charges up the physiological response that would be appropriate if it were,” Krista Jordan, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in Austin, Texas, told Health.

In turn, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, making you feel ready to take on the world—or at least the horror film world.

You Can Explore Your Dark Side

For some, horror movies may be a way of tapping into their darker side. "We all have unknowable parts of ourselves that I think are kind of externalized into dangers outside of us," Erin Hadley, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia, told Health.

We might be drawn to horror, posited Hadley, because it allows us to explore those taboo parts of ourselves. "With a movie like Carrie, for example, a lot of people identify with her being bullied and tormented at school and at home," said Hadley. "But do you then root for her to slaughter her classmates? I think a lot of people do."

Even if the movie's antagonist is the scariest being on screen, that doesn't keep people from enjoying the havoc they wreak.

"Identifying with the perpetrator is a classically Freudian interpretation [of why we like horror]," added Jordan. "It's the same reason Freud would say we like to watch boxing: We're not identifying with the person getting hit; we're identifying with the person beating the crap out of the other guy. I think a lot of people would struggle to admit that, but truth be told, I think that's probably going on on some level."

You Feel Different Than the Victim

Victims in horror movies sometimes make obvious mistakes—like that old chestnut “going back in the house.” By watching them, you can convince yourself that, if presented with the same situation, you’d manage to survive.

“There’s always one of those scenes where the intended victim manages to disable the perpetrator, and then they start walking away really slowly and turn their back,” said Jordan. That’s when you might find yourself yelling at the screen—and it’s not just because shouting during a horror movie adds to the fun of it.

“I think there’s that part of us that’s trying to say, ‘That would never happen to me,’” explained Jordan. “‘Here are all the ways that I would respond differently.’” For example, you’d hide better, think quicker, and never trip while running in the woods.

“It’s sort of like if you read an article in the newspaper about somebody being killed in a crime that happened at 4:30 in the morning, and you say to yourself, ‘That would never happen to me because I would never be out at 4:30 in the morning,’” Margot Levin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in New York City, told Health.

Making those conclusions help put the distance between yourself and the person who was in trouble. “It’s magical thinking. It’s how we separate ourselves from our fear of terrible things happening to us.”

Benefits of Watching Horror Movies

Sometimes, horror movies can be a good thing. They can let you feel safe, help you be ready when things get bad, and teach you how to cope.

You’re Terrified but Safe

You may get a rush of adrenaline from screening a horror movie, but you’re not actually in any danger when you’re watching, say, The Purge—which is another huge part of the genre’s appeal. “You’re seeing scary things in a controlled environment, and I think that that’s something that we all crave,” said Levin.

“It goes back to early childhood,” explained Levin. “Think of a toddler learning to walk: One of the things they like to do is run away from the parent, get to a certain point where it’s a little scary, and then run back. It’s about playing with danger but with a sense of security.”

Despite the absence of any real threat, many people still feel a sense of accomplishment when they finish a horror movie.

“You feel like, ‘I dealt with something that was outside of my comfort zone, and I conquered it,’” Jeffrey Gardere, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in New York City, told Health. “That gives you confidence.”

They Help You Prepare for the Worst

Horror movies give you a glimpse at how life-threatening situations might play out, which can make you feel more prepared for actual danger.

"It's about trying to learn to predict the world around you," Coltan Scrivner, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Comparative Human Development at The University of Chicago, told Health. "What do other people do, even if they're fictional, when they're in this kind of situation? What do other people do when they find themselves facing some particular kind of threat or challenge?"

Gardere admitted having a fascination with zombie horror and explained it this way: "There's a small part of me that believes that at some point there may be some side effect of some medication that's not going to reanimate the dead, but that may truly affect a frontal, temporal lobe or something, and people could behave in ways that could be very dangerous."

By watching shows like The Walking Dead, Gardere could proximate what might happen if his worst nightmare becomes a reality—and it's not just the zombies he was taking notes on.

"As a psychologist, I watch a show like The Walking Dead to see how people behave in a zombie apocalypse, how they become the true monsters," said Gardere. "The zombies are nothing more than the window dressing."

Horror Teaches You To Cope

In addition to giving you a playbook of sorts, watching horror movies can help you practice coping strategies. “I think people who watch them a lot are learning how to deal with uncertainty and suspense and anxiety,” said Scrivner.

Scrivner co-authored a study that showed horror fans were more resilient and less psychologically distressed than non-horror fans in the face of COVID-19—likely because of their well-honed coping skills.

“We think what’s going on is that horror fans are essentially building a toolkit for how to deal with feeling anxious or afraid,” said Scrivner. “Because that’s exactly what you do when you’re watching a horror movie. You regulate your emotions such that you’re in a sweet spot for feeling afraid but also having fun.”

How To Add Fun Fear to Your Life

The most important part of recreational fear is doing something that makes you scared but still leads to a feeling of enjoyment afterward. Some tips for creating opportunities to do fun fear activities in your life include:

  • Doing activities that won't worsen anxieties or worries you already have
  • Figuring out what your fun-fear balance is
  • Trying something with scares you'll be prepared for, like riding rollercoasters

A Quick Review

People like horror movies for different reasons, like thinking they would react differently than the film's characters. There are also benefits to watching these types of movies, such as feeling scared but safe at the same time or learning coping skills. Even if you don't prefer horror movies, you can still experience fun fear by doing other activities you're comfortable with.

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4 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Martin GN. (Why)Do you like scary movies? A review of the empirical research on psychological responses to horror filmsFront Psychol. 2019;10:2298. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02298

  3. Scrivner C, Johnson JA, Kjeldgaard-Christiansen J, Clasen M. Pandemic practice: Horror fans and morbidly curious individuals are more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemicPersonality and Individual Differences. 2021;168:110397. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2020.110397

  4. American Heart Association. Healthy fun or health risk? The two sides of fear.

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