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

By Patti Greco
October 13, 2020
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This is the latest article in Health's column, But Why? Here, experts decipher the psychological reasons behind the most puzzling human behavior mysteries.

Horror movies are scary. They’re gross. They make you think about death and fear for your life. And yet, for many of us, they’re a blast to watch—the best way to spend a Friday night, especially in October, when ghosts, gore, and the macabre rule the month.

Take It Chapter One, the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s stuff-of-nightmares novel, as proof: The film made more than $700 million at the box office worldwide. In other words, moviegoers flocked to theaters by choice to see a killer clown terrorize a bunch of kids. (Pass the popcorn: Pennywise is about to rip off little Georgie’s arm!)

So what gives? Why do so many of us go out of our way and even pay good money to consume frightening entertainment? Here’s what the experts have to say.

Being scared can give you a thrilling rush

Even though horror movies are fake, watching them can trigger a very real fight-or-flight response, some experts say. “The brain doesn’t always distinguish between fantasy and reality completely effectively,” Krista Jordan, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Austin, Texas, tells Health. “For example, get someone to describe biting into a lemon, and if the person is really good at describing it, your salivary glands will activate.”

According to Jordan, the same sort of glitch can happen when you’re watching horror. “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,” she says.

In turn, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, which means it’s flooded with adrenaline and euphoria-inducing brain chemicals like endorphins and dopamine—all of which can pump you up and make you feel like you’re ready to take on the world (or at least Michael Myers).

You’re terrified, but you're also 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,” Margot Levin, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in New York City, tells Health.

“It goes back to early childhood,” she explains. “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, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in New York City, tells Health. “That gives you confidence.”

It helps 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 PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Human Development at The University of Chicago, tells 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 admits he has a fascination with zombie horror, and he explains 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,” he says.

By watching shows like The Walking Dead, Gardere can proximate what might happen if his worst nightmare becomes a reality—and it’s not just the zombies he’s 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,” he says. “The zombies are nothing more than the window dressing.”

Horror teaches you to cope

In addition to giving you a playbook of sorts, experts say 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,” says Scrivner. He recently co-authored a study that shows horror fans are more resilient and less psychologically distressed than non-horror fans in the face of today’s Covid-19 pandemic—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,” says 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.”

It lets you explore your own dark side

“We all have unknowable parts of ourselves that I think are kind of externalized into dangers outside of us,” Erin Hadley, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia, tells Health.

One reason we might be drawn to horror, she posits, is that 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,” she says. “But do you then root for her to slaughter her classmates? I think a lot of people do.”

“Identifying with the perpetrator is a classically Freudian interpretation [of why we like horror],” adds 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.”

It makes you think you’re different than the victim—and therefore more likely to survive 

By watching victims in horror movies make obvious mistakes—like that old chestnut “going back in the house”—you’re able to 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,” says Jordan. That’s when you might find yourself yelling at the screen (because, duh, the killer is going to get back up!)—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,’” explains Jordan. “‘Here are all the ways that I would respond differently.’” For example, you’d hide better, think quicker, and never, ever 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,’” says Levin. “It’s magical thinking. It’s how we separate ourselves from our fear of terrible things happening to us.”

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