Why Do We Watch Scary Movies?


| 3 Comments
Personally I've never grown out of my fear of horror movies and I'm sure many of you haven't either. With every scary movie I've watched, I have found it increasingly difficult to find any sort of benefit in voluntarily frightening myself. However for many the opposite is true. There are plenty of people who enjoy watching scary movies and have even developed a passion for them. But from a logical standpoint, there really should be no reason for people to watch them in the first place. Are there actual benefits in fear? Science has even had trouble answering this question.

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When I asked a friend of mine why he enjoyed watching scary movies, he simply replied, "I don't know, they're entertaining." Seems reasonable enough but watching a car crash is also entertaining. So is it rational for people to develop a passion for watching car crashes? Probably not. Struggling to understand the concept as to why people genuinely enjoy scaring themselves, I went to science to solve my question. It turns out that there is no single answer but here are some theories that I found interesting:

Theory #1: It is a way of experiencing fear in a controlled setting
This theory is similar to the benefits of riding a roller coaster. The thrill of riding a roller coaster causes an adrenaline rush, increases heart rate, and causes fear without any real consequences. Being on a roller coaster will make you think you're in danger when you really aren't. Watching a scary movie produces the same effects. But the flaw that I found in this theory is that it fails to answer the question of why exactly we chase fear. 

Theory #2: Conflicting emotions
I found this theory to be very interesting. Researchers Andrade and Cohen state in their theory that people enjoy experiencing positive and negative feelings simultaneously. They argue that some people can be, "happy to be unhappy". It gets more in depth when they say that when people experience a certain amount of "psychological disengagement" or detachment from safety, positive feelings can be the product. Though I personally don't believe this pertains to every scary movie lover. 


Theory #3: For males, "the entrance to manhood is associate with enduring hardship"
This theory uses a very male-oriented ideology that "there's a motivation males have in our culture to master threatening situations." After watching or in this case enduring a scary movie, this theory states that people (typically males) find satisfaction in overcoming fear. Though this could very well be an explanation for some, it doesn't seem very likely that this theory would explain why all people, especially females, like watching scary movies.

Theory #4: It's in your brain
Research shows that fear is not just a biological reaction but an emotion as well. Humans are more evolved than animals which is why we are able to understand and think of fear rather than just experience it and forget about the next second (i.e. squirrels, birds, chipmunks). The brains amygdala and cortex have interactions that create the emotion of fear. So, "once an emotion is aroused, it is difficult for us to turn it off". So maybe our longing for fear is less voluntary and more biological. 

There are many theories out there that attempt to explain this ongoing phenomenon. But I feel as if each theory either has a flaw or it just doesn't apply to everyone. I understand that people may find pleasure in fear but this blog questions why that is so. I would like to hear feedback, criticism, and especially theories of your own. Why do people watch scary movies?

3 Comments

I think that the desire to watch scary movies may have a relationship to one's desire to feel a so-called adrenaline rush. As has been studied, it is said that people who are often coined as "adrenaline junkies" can often actually be addicted to the adrenaline hormone that our brain releases in times of heightened stress. One part of our brain that is stimulated in fearful situations is the hypothalamus, responsible for the "fight or flight instinct" that the human brain gives as an automatic reaction to distress.The fight or flight instinct releases a rush of adrenaline into our blood streams. Therefore, I think that those who are prone to be addicted to adrenaline, or simply just enjoy the rush, are more prone to enjoy scary movies because of the adrenaline that is released in a relatively safe environment.

My roommate and I watch so many scary movies on Netflix, some that I question why I even watch them as I cringe during some scenes. Some of them are so gruesome; who even comes up with these ideas?! I agree that adrenaline is a huge reason as to why so many people love scary movies. It is the same for extreme sports fanatics; they participate in activities they know could cause them their life, and they take much joy in doing so! People love to live on the edge and experience a glimpse of what life would be like for them if there were no limits to death.
Apparently, Penn State is currently conducting research on this very topic! Researcher Mary Beth Oliver makes a good point. Everyone physically responds the same way to being scared, in particular an increased heart rate and sometimes goose bumps. However, not everyone emotionally responds the same way to fear. I think some people like watching fear because it allows them a sense of comfort that they are not in real life experiencing the horror. It then allows them to visually experience what the character is, and often leading the viewer to think of what they would hypothetically do if in the same situation.
But another good point is brought up by Access Science. They say that people, males in particular, rarely watch violence/horror alone, normally in groups. Why is this so? I think this is because people like being scared for the excitement, but they never want to do it alone because it elicits even more fear that people can’t handle solo. If others are with you watching the movie, it is as if you are there together depending on each other to save each other if you were in the situation the movie is presenting. This reflects fear in real life. People never want to get in trouble alone, go through scary situations alone. The best comfort is someone by your side.
I do agree that being able to handle a scary movies sort of proves masculinity in our society, and the girl is not supposed to be able to handle. Why do you think that typical scenario exists of the couple going to a scary movie and the boy’s job is to put his arm around the girl when she is scared?! However, this “scenario” is conflicting for me because it basically is saying that males are mentally stronger than females, which is not true! I am sure there are plenty of girls that can handle just as much fear as males. Do you think it is justified to say males are less scared than females regarding situations associated with fear?

I really like the experiencing fear in a control setting theory because it’s so true. My roommate is also a film major so she can break down scenes and angle shots so it makes watching movies more technical. That is in a way controlled because it takes away emotion and it becomes logic.
I also like watching scary movies for the adrenaline rush too. You can take yourself to another place and yell at people doing stupid stuff in the movie and wonder what you would do. It all depends on the type of person you are and what your levels of being scared is. Some things that are scary to one person might be scary for another.
My roommate asked me what was the scariest moment of my life and she was surprised by my answer because she thought she knew. I once told her of a time when people started shooting right next to me and she thought that was the scariest moment of my life. I was afraid but it wasn’t that scary to me because where I grew up that wasn’t something out of the ordinary. I have watched scary movies that had me more scared than that moment so it all really depends on what you’re desensitized to.

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