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The Psychology of Fear: Exploring the Science Behind Horror Entertainment

5 Min Read

Scripted horror reigns on TV. From “American Horror Story” to “The Walking Dead,” vampires, zombies, and ghosts are now more prevalent on American screens. And people are tuning in: With 17.3 million viewers, the season five premiere of “The Walking Dead” was the highest-rated show in cable television history.

It is not just TV, as a slate of horror movies are released throughout the year. Given the low production costs of horror and suspense entertainment, it is no mystery why studios produce so much horror-based content. But it’s harder to explain why people are so captivated by this genre. What is the psychology of fear, and why are people drawn to thrill-seeking entertainment?

Why Horror?

The enjoyment that some people get from fear is likely not from fear itself. Instead, thrills stem from “the physical and emotional release that follows scary situations,” according to Seeker, a division of Discovery. For some horror fans, 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 aspects of the experience.

Psychologist Glenn D. Walters identified three primary factors that feed the attraction to horror entertainment. The first is tension, which producers and directors create by including elements of mystery, suspense, gore, terror, and shock. The next factor is relevance. Horror films draw from this factor by establishing elements that viewers will identify with. This often means universal relevance, which plays on the psychology of fear of death and the unknown, or cultural relevance of social issues. Walters says that viewers also experience personal relevance, as they identify with the protagonist or condemn the antagonist.

The last factor Walters identifies is unrealism. Although horror entertainment has become more graphic in recent years, viewers realize that what they are watching is fake. Movies and TV shows use certain camera angles, soundtracks, and even humor to send cues that remind viewers that what they are watching is intended to entertain. When horror films and TV shows use these factors in the right ways, they can play on the psychology of fear in ways that appeal to viewers.

Biological Reactions to Fear

For viewers to enjoy watching horror movies, they must also be aware that they are in a safe environment. Horror entertainment can trigger the fight-or-flight response, which comes with a boost in adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine. The brain can then process surroundings and conclude that the experience is not a genuine threat.

This knowledge of personal safety is one reason horror fans habitually watch scary movies. As sociologist Margee Kerr told The Atlantic, it is partially due to a phenomenon known as excitation transfer. After an accelerated heart rate, heavy breathing, and other physical reactions to fear wear off, viewers experience intense relief. Positive feelings intensify and, in short, “fear floods our brains with feel-good chemicals,” according to The Huffington Post.

For some viewers, physical reactions like this are enjoyable. About 10 percent of the population deeply enjoys the adrenaline rush associated with the horror genre, as Glenn Sparks, a professor at Purdue University, told Psych Central. But other people find horror movies and TV shows upsetting. Sparks says these viewers “have a harder time screening out unwanted stimuli in their environment.” As a result, they can have negative 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 that people do not consciously know it is happening. Because the brain is highly complex and transfers information continuously, many cognitive processes are involved in the psychology of fear. However, Smithsonian 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.

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.

Elements That Influence the Psychology of Fear

Psychologists and scientists have long been interested in why people pursue and enjoy fear. 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 of 35 journal articles in media psychology concerning “the relationship between viewer enjoyment and frightening movies,” according to Pacific Standard. They found prevailing theories that explain why movies like Paranormal Activity perform well in box offices around the globe, including:

  • Excitation transfer: This theory states that people who experience an emotional response to horror also experience more enjoyment when threats are resolved.
  • 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.”
  • Sensation-seeking: People who watch horror movies may want to stimulate sensory reactions. Studies indicate these viewers may be more aggressive than other people.

Understanding the Psychology of Fear

The biological processes behind the psychology of fear are complex and varied. However, the cultural interest in horror entertainment seems to have a foundation in who human beings are as a species, as well as individual interests and traits.

If you are interested in relevant topics in psychology like the ones covered here, consider CSP Global’s online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program. This program equips students with the knowledge and tools necessary to excel in the field of psychology. Take part in a flexible, accelerated learning experience with courses that you can complete in seven weeks.

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