Mind & Body

The Scientific Reason Why Some People Love Horror Movies (and Others Hate Them)

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It sometimes seems like there are two types of people: Those who love horror movies and those who can be found safely under a blanket during the scary parts. The reason why you fall into one camp versus the other is a matter of nature and nurture.

Fear = Fun

Whether it's a lion chasing you on a real savannah or a movie monster chasing a film's main character, the sense of fear you get comes from the same place in the brain: the amygdala. That's an ancient region that's responsible for emotion processing and, importantly, triggering the fight-or-flight response. That's when the body releases chemical messengers like adrenaline, cortisol, and epinephrine that increase your heartbeat, elevate your blood pressure, and shallow your breathing.

It appears that, for some reason, certain people are just wired to have a higher tolerance for anxiety and fear, with fight-or-flight responses that calm faster than most. As a result, they may have a greater need to seek out intense experiences to get the same effect. These "sensation seekers" tend to be more open to or even seek out experiences that help them achieve that state — things like skydiving or spicy food.

That's the "nature" part of the equation. But there's plenty of "nurture" here, too. For example, there also may be differences between men and women when it comes to fear fandom, but they're not necessarily biological. Research suggests that men enjoy scary movies more than women, which could be because they're socialized to be fearless and tough.

"Men often like [scary films] as date movies because women are more likely to seek physical closeness when they're scared, and men can show off their strength and bravery," Joanne Cantor, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told Psych Central.

Experiences during childhood can also heavily influence a person's tolerance for terror. Trauma stemming from things like neglect, poverty, and substance abuse can all affect the amygdala, putting it in a sort of survival mode that leads it to become more sensitive over time.

On the other end of the spectrum, positive childhood experiences with fear teach the brain that it's fun to be scared.

"I once had a client who shared with me that when they were young they used to watch scary movies alongside their mother, and this made them feel safe, and that sometimes they even laughed together at the scary scenes," Kelley Hopkins-Alvarez, a licensed professional counselor, told Reader's Digest. "They definitely had a sense of what was reality and what was fantasy."

"If we start tying scary things to friends, family, it comes together in this full picture of 'This is entertaining, this is a fun thing that we do,'" Margee Kerr, sociologist and author of "Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear," told The Cut.

Your experiences immediately after watching a scary movie can have an effect too. Your body stays in a state of arousal afterward, and arousal heightens emotions. If you continue having a great night with friends, those positive feelings will cement the experience as a good one in your mind and will make you want to do it again. But if you get into a car accident on the way home, for example, your mind will register the experience as a bad one and you'll be more inclined to skip a scary flick the next time around. Those scary associations carry more weight and are harder to get out of your head than the pleasant ones, so they're likely to have greater bearing on your future behavior.

Fear Factor Fluidity

It is possible to shift from horror hater to lover with controlled exposure to scary stuff. If you're able to withstand 90 minutes of fear, you'll feel more resilient, which can actually make you become more resilient — that is, you'll be less scared the next time around.

Parents who want to train their kids to be horror buffs should proceed with caution though: Kids under 7 have a difficult time distinguishing real threats from make-believe, and the risk may be greater than the reward.

"Intense fright reactions are much easier to prevent than to undo," Cantor says.

Horror movies will also hit home harder for both kids and adults when the threats in the movie seem particularly realistic. A teen who babysits may be extra freaked by a movie about a terrorized babysitter, for example.

If you're the type to clamor for tickets to the latest slasher film, enjoy the Halloween season! As for the rest of us? Embrace your scaredy-cat status — it makes November that much more pleasant.

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Learn more — if you dare — in "Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear" by Margee Kerr. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Steffie Drucker October 16, 2019

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