The Psychology of Fear: Exploring the Science Behind Horror Entertainment

Posted August 10, 2016 | By Tricia Hussung

Image of a blonde woman screaming overlaid with title text.

Horror reigns on TV: From American Horror Story to The Walking Dead, vampires, zombies and ghosts are becoming more and more prevalent on American screens. With 17.3 million viewers, the season five premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead was the highest-rated show in cable television history.

It isn’t just TV: Horror movies are also produced at a rapid pace and released many times a year. Given the low production costs of horror and suspense entertainment, it is no mystery why horror-based entertainment continues to be produced. What is less clear, however, is why people are so captivated by watching it. What is the psychology behind fear, and why are people drawn to thrill-seeking entertainment?

Why Horror?

The enjoyment some people get from fear is likely not from fear itself but from “the physical and emotional release that follows scary situations,” according to Seeker, a division of Discovery. For certain individuals, the desire to feel fear is a manifestation of an adrenaline-seeking personality. Fear is “a negative emotion that comes about when people are under siege or threat,” professor Glenn Sparks told Seeker. Yet people enjoy other things that come with the experience.

Psychologist Glenn D. Walters identifies three primary factors that feed the attraction to horror entertainment. Tension is the first, which producers and directors create by including elements of mystery, suspense, gore, terror and shock.

Then there’s relevance. Horror films, for example, have to include elements that viewers will identify with. This can mean universal relevance, which involves fear of things like death and the unknown or cultural relevance of social issues. Personal relevance, which Walters says happens when the viewer identifies with the protagonist or condemns the antagonist, is the final way that relevance influences the reaction to horror.

The last factor Walters identifies is unrealism. Though horror entertainment has become more and more graphic in recent years, viewers realize that what they are watching is fake. Movies and TV shows feature elements like camera angles, soundtracks and even humor, all of which send cues to viewers that what they’re watching is intended to entertain. All of this means that horror films and TV shows that incorporate these factors are more appealing to viewers.

Biological Reactions to Fear

For viewers to get enjoyment from a scary situation such as watching a horror movie, they must also be aware that they’re in a safe environment. Horror entertainment can trigger the fight-or-flight response, which comes with a boost in adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine while viewers are in a safe space. The brain can process surroundings and conclude that the experience isn’t a true threat. This is part of the reason horror fans habitually watch things that elicit this response. As sociologist Margee Kerr told The Atlantic, it’s partially due to a phenomenon known as excitation transfer. After the physical reactions associated with fear wear off (faster heart rate and breathing, muscle tension and other involuntary responses), they are replaced with intense relief. Positive feelings intensify and, in short, “fear floods our brains with feel-good chemicals,” according to The Huffington Post.

For some, high levels of arousal like this are enjoyable. About 10 percent of the population deeply enjoys the adrenaline rush associated with the horror genre, Sparks says. But for others, horror movies and TV shows are upsetting. Some individuals “have a harder time screening out unwanted stimuli in their environment,” Sparks told Psych Central. They are more likely to have negative physiological and psychological reactions to horror.

In the brain, fear causes a chain reaction that begins with stressful stimuli and ends with the fight-or-flight response discussed above. This response is mostly autonomic, meaning people don’t consciously know it is happening. Because the brain is a highly complex organ that is constantly transferring information, many different areas of the brain are involved in fear. However, Psych Central identifies some of the key players:

  • The thalamus determines where incoming sensory data should be sent in the body.
  • The sensory cortex interprets this sensory data.
  • The hippocampus can store and retrieve memories and process stimuli to give context.
  • The amygdala determines possible threats and “decodes emotions” while storing fear memories.
  • The hypothalamus activates the fight-or-flight response.

All of these biological components work together to identify fear and respond to it. But there are also psychological elements that drive people to seek out horror entertainment.

Psychological Elements of Fear

The pursuit of fear has been of interest to psychologists and scientists for many years. There have been many studies and suggested hypotheses for why people respond the way they do to horror. For example, Cynthia A. Hoffner and Kenneth J. Levine published a meta-analysis in Media Psychology of 35 journal articles concerning “the relationship between viewer enjoyment and frightening movies,” according to Pacific Standard. They found a few common theories that explain why movies like Paranormal Activity perform well in box offices around the globe.

The first is excitation transfer, which states that those who experience an emotional response to horror also experience more enjoyment when threats are resolved. Another hypothesis is related to individual empathy: People who are less empathetic enjoy horror films more, according to professor Ron Tamborini. He suggests that “viewers with high levels of empathy should dislike horror films because they react negatively to the suffering of others,” Pacific Standard reports. Finally, other studies have concluded that people who like horror films are more likely to be sensation-seeking, have above-average aggression and be male. It is important to note in this case that these are not causal relationships; rather, they are correlative.

Understanding Fear

The psychological motivations and biological processes behind fear are complex and varied. However, it is clear that the cultural interest in horror entertainment — from TV shows to movies and beyond — has a significant foundation in who human beings are as a species, as well as individual interests and traits.

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