Why Do We Like Scary Stories?

It started as a nightmare. Comics writer Adam Ellis dreamt of a strange boy with a grotesquely crushed head, and a warning: call the boy "Dear David" and ask him two questions, and he'll answer. But ask a third, and you seal your fate. But he didn't heed that warning. And ever since, his rocking chair has rocked all on its own, objects around his apartment have seemingly been moved by unseen hands, and every midnight on the dot, his cats become obsessed with...something on the other side of his door. He's been telling the story, complete with photos and videos, on his Twitter page for the past couple of months.

Now, we're not going to try to argue about if "Dear David" is real or fake. But we know for sure that it has blown up the internet. But why? Why do human beings like ghost stories so much? Even if — sometimes especially if — we don't believe them? In other words, why do we like scaring ourselves so much?

Things That Go Bump (And Why We Love Them)

You know that feeling you get after you read a really scary story? That short-of-breath, heart-in-your-throat, can't-sleep-at-night feeling? It's not exactly a pleasant sensation. But if you're like us, it's usually accompanied by another feeling: a need-to-read-another-one feeling. Our need to freak ourselves out is almost as spooky as the ghosts themselves.

We've already told you about how the less religious somebody is, the more likely they are to believe in aliens. And as it turns out, that link might hold true across supernatural phenomena. In one 2014 paper, sociologists Joseph Baker and Christopher Bader drew a connection between Americans' diminishing religious faith and the renaissance of ghost-based "reality" programs in the 21st century. So is it just that we need to believe in something, and if it's not religion, then it's going to be either UFOs or ghosts?

Some people think it's not the believing that does it, but the unbelieving. That is, we like scary stories because we know they aren't true, that they'll eventually come to an end. According to Neil Gaiman (a man who knows a thing or two about scary stories), "Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again." But even when you get off that train, the feeling sticks to the bottom of your shoes like dust.

A Physiological Need

The thing is, we might never get a "real" answer to the question of why we love to scare ourselves so much. It might depend on the person — does watching a scary movie leave you feeling relieved that the zombies aren't real, or does it keep you up at night with visions of grasping ghouls? Either way, the very act of getting frightened can be very satisfying, and it might come down to a physiological response.

Writing for Inside Science, Astara March noted that a frightening encounter inevitably floods your system with adrenaline, even if what you're experiencing isn't dangerous at all. When you see the little plastic spider on the ground, your body automatically prepares to react as if it's a black widow. Maybe you've got a particular fear of spiders, and you immediately run away. That's not likely to leave you smiling and ready for more scares. But if you've got a more controlled response to fear stimuli, then a quick check will reveal that you're not in any danger at all. Then you get to enjoy some of the side effects of the adrenaline rush, namely, a heightened production of endorphins.

So maybe it really does just come down to hormones. If you're the type of person who loves scary movies, it might be because you've trained your fear response not to immediately freak out when Jason Voorhees pops up on screen. And if you hate them, it's just that you've got a perfectly natural aversion to mask-wearing machete-wielders.

Real Ghost Stories: Winchester Mystery House

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 10, 2017

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