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Finding comfort in the horror

The psychological appeal of scary movies

Some people crave thrill-seeking activities, even if it makes them nervous. For adrenaline junkies, this could mean skydiving, swimming with sharks or other pursuits that require someone to ignore their natural desire to retreat. 

The same could be said for those who enjoy huddling on a couch and peering through their fingers while watching a scary movie. 

Horror movies aren’t just popular around Halloween. Hit films like It: Chapter Two released on Aug. 26, 2019 made roughly $211.5 million, and The Invisible Man released on Feb. 24, 2020 made about $65 million. 

These films are popular because of the sensation of adrenaline people get from watching them. An article published by the Frontiers in Psychology Journal says that everyone is on a sensation seeking spectrum—the degree in which a person willingly pursues activities that result in a sensation despite the psychological or physical effects. 

Those who experience a positive emotion while sensation seeking are high on the spectrum and find the shocking feeling from horror movies pleasurable, while those who are low on the spectrum do not like the sensation that comes from horror movies.   

Sometimes the human brain can confuse reality and fiction while watching a horror movie. This causes people to be scared and produce adrenaline that can be pleasurable due to the release of endorphins and dopamine.

The exciting rush of adrenaline is prevalent because of the frequent use of the classic jump scare. The jump scare is the most used tactic in horror movies and consists of a long pause followed by a striking sound that is sometimes combined with a visual shock. The jump scare triggers the startle reflex and makes the viewer feel pumped up and thrilled.  

Even when the suspenseful moments are over, it is still pleasurable for the viewer’s brain because any negative emotions of stress or suspense that was built up from an action-packed spooky scene is converted into euphoria once it has settled afterwards. 

Besides the adrenaline addiction and euphoria, horror movies are a way to prepare for scary scenarios. People may want to analyze how characters in a horror movie deal with a haunted house or a serial killer just in case they run into similar obstacles. Preparing for worst-case scenarios is especially true for movies about apocalyptic situations, like zombies or a pandemic.

People also watch horror movies to cope with the dark realities that surround them. During or after a horror movie, viewers develop strategies for self-soothing such as learning how to breathe and regulate their emotions. This makes them more resilient when they feel anxious or panicked. 

On the other hand, some people live for the escapism horror movies provide them. They are a great way for people to detach themselves from serious aspects of their life, like work or family troubles, and instead watch a fictional character deal with a life-threatening situation. 

Lastly, there is a social aspect to watching horror movies that can make a person feel closer to their friends and partners. Watching a horror movie with a group can connect everyone together because they are all sharing the vulnerable experience of being scared.

Although there are many psychological reasons for why people enjoy scary films, they can also just be fun and entertaining—especially around Halloween. Everyone has different interests, but horror movies contribute to the aesthetic of the holiday. But if someone is scared to watch them this spooky season, they can always just stick to handling the trick-or-treaters instead.

About the author

Reporter at

Grace Nelson-Gunness is a reporter for Youth Mind. She enjoys watching Criminal Minds or reading a suspenseful horror-thriller novel while drinking a vanilla latte.

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