The Psychology of Fear: Exploring the Science Behind Horror Entertainment

Scripted Horror Reigns on TV

From “American Horror Story” to “The Walking Dead,” vampires, zombies, and ghosts have become increasingly prevalent on American screens. In fact, the season five premiere of “The Walking Dead” garnered a record-breaking 17.3 million viewers, making it the highest-rated show in cable television history. This surge in popularity can also be seen in the consistent release of horror movies throughout the year. With their relatively low production costs, it’s no mystery why studios continue to produce so much horror-based content. However, what remains unclear is why people are so captivated by this genre.

The Psychology of Fear

The enjoyment that some people derive from fear is likely not from fear itself, but rather from the physical and emotional release that follows scary situations. According to Seeker, a division of Discovery, thrills stem from this release rather than the fear itself. For some horror fans, the desire to feel fear is a manifestation of their adrenaline-seeking personality. Fear is a negative emotion that typically arises when people are under siege or threat, as explained by Professor Glenn Sparks. Yet, viewers often find enjoyment in other aspects of the horror experience.

Factors That Feed the Attraction to Horror Entertainment

Psychologist Glenn D. Walters has identified three primary factors that contribute to the attraction to horror entertainment: tension, relevance, and unrealism. Producers and directors create tension by incorporating elements of mystery, suspense, gore, terror, and shock. This tension keeps viewers engaged and on the edge of their seats. Additionally, horror films often draw from the factor of relevance by establishing elements that viewers can identify with. This can be achieved through universal relevance, which taps into the psychology of fear of death and the unknown, or through cultural relevance by addressing social issues. Walters also notes that viewers experience personal relevance as they identify with the protagonist or condemn the antagonist. The final factor, unrealism, acknowledges that while horror entertainment has become increasingly graphic, viewers are aware that what they are watching is not real. Movies and TV shows use various techniques such as camera angles, soundtracks, and even humor to remind viewers that what they are witnessing is intended for entertainment purposes.

Biological Reactions to Fear

For viewers to enjoy watching horror movies, they must also feel safe in their environment. Horror entertainment can trigger the fight-or-flight response, which results in a boost of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine in the brain. This physiological response allows the brain to process the surroundings and conclude that the experience is not a genuine threat. This knowledge of personal safety is one reason why horror fans habitually watch scary movies. According to sociologist Margee Kerr, this is partially due to a phenomenon known as excitation transfer. After experiencing an accelerated heart rate, heavy breathing, and other physical reactions to fear, viewers subsequently experience intense relief. This relief leads to positive feelings and a flood of “feel-good chemicals” in the brain, as explained by The Huffington Post. While approximately 10 percent of the population deeply enjoys the adrenaline rush associated with the horror genre, others may find horror movies and TV shows unsettling. Professor Glenn Sparks suggests that these individuals may have a harder time screening out unwanted stimuli in their environment, which can result in negative psychological reactions to horror.

The Biological Components of Fear

Fear triggers a complex chain reaction in the brain that starts with the perception of stressful stimuli and ends with the fight-or-flight response discussed earlier. This response is mainly autonomic, meaning that individuals are not consciously aware of it happening. Due to the brain’s highly complex nature and continuous information processing, numerous cognitive processes are involved in the psychology of fear. Smithsonian identifies several key players in these processes:

  • The thalamus determines where incoming sensory data should be sent in the body.
  • The sensory cortex interprets this sensory data.
  • The hippocampus stores and retrieves memories and processes stimuli to provide context.
  • The amygdala identifies potential threats and “decodes emotions” while storing fear memories.
  • The hypothalamus activates the fight-or-flight response.

Elements That Influence the Psychology of Fear

Psychologists and scientists have long been interested in understanding why people pursue and enjoy fear. Numerous studies and hypotheses have been proposed to explain people’s responses to horror. For example, Cynthia A. Hoffner and Kenneth J. Levine conducted a meta-analysis of 35 journal articles in media psychology, focusing on the relationship between viewer enjoyment and frightening movies. Their analysis led them to identify prevailing theories that explain why movies like “Paranormal Activity” perform well at the box office. These theories include:

  • Excitation transfer: This theory suggests that individuals who experience an emotional response to horror also experience more enjoyment when threats are resolved.
  • Individual empathy: Professor Ron Tamborini suggests that people who are less empathetic actually enjoy horror films more. He argues that viewers with high levels of empathy should dislike horror films because they react negatively to the suffering of others.
  • Sensation-seeking: Some individuals watch horror movies to stimulate sensory reactions. Studies indicate that these viewers may be more aggressive than others.

Understanding the Psychology of Fear

Understanding the psychology of fear helps shed light on why people are drawn to horror entertainment. It is not simply the fear itself that captivates, but rather the physical and emotional release that follows. Factors such as tension, relevance, and unrealism play a significant role in attracting viewers to horror. Additionally, biological reactions to fear, including the fight-or-flight response and the release of “feel-good chemicals,” contribute to the enjoyment of horror films for many individuals. However, it is important to recognize that not everyone responds to horror in the same way, and some may find it distressing. By delving into the biology and psychology of fear, researchers continue to uncover insights into human behavior and the appeal of this unique genre of entertainment.