Pain as Pleasure: Why We Love to be Scared

We repeatedly go back to the movies we know we'll need to watch through our fingers. But why?

Pain as Pleasure: Why We Love to be Scared

Halloween’s coming up, and I’m planning my Horror movie night. There’s something so satisfying about curling up with a massive bowl of popcorn (it needs to be big enough to hide the screen in the extra scary bits) and being scared out of your wits by fictional ghosties and ghoulies. What is it that makes us go back to horror movies time and time again – even when we don’t have Halloween as an excuse? Why do we love being scared?


OK, so admittedly, not everyone is that enthusiastic about the horror genre. But despite this, nearly 1.5 billion horror movie tickets were sold in 2015 and the genre’s share of the market continues to grow, even as – thanks in part to the rise of streaming services – ticket sales for all genres decline. The Saw franchise, which displays a level of violence that most consider obscene – grossed nearly a $1billion. There’s undoubtedly something successful in the horror genre that keeps us coming back for more.

You’d think logic dictates that we’d run far away from things that make us feel uncomfortable, or in this case scare us silly. Contrary to what one would think while gasping and watching through one’s fingers, some people find horror films strangely comforting. In fact, according to a study in the Journal of Media Psychology, there are three main reasons we watch horror movies in the first place – tension, relevance, and unrealism. It turns out “the appeal of ultra-violent horror films appears to be driven less by entertainment value than by clinically recognised peculiarities of the human psyche”. 

Tension is created by eliciting curiosity in audience members. It’s then maintained by all the horror movie tropes we’re familiar with – those long dramatic pauses, the single, high-pitched note that seems to play for an age, the endless jump scares. We’re kept in a state of constant flux between the tension and relief that thrills us in the same way theme park junkies are thrilled by the speed and sudden drops of the roller coaster.

“There is the anticipation of the long climb, the tension as the peak nears, the exhilaration as the action unfolds, and the release of tension as the conclusion is reached,” writes David Innes. “The euphoria of having survived such an experience, even through the vicarious nature of film, is palpable, and it is self-reinforcing”.

According to Innes, filmmakers promote relevance in horror films by allowing the audience to sympathise with the victims.

“The human condition is to struggle against the odds,” he writes, “and drawing parallels between everyday obstacles in an audience member’s life to the more outlandish obstacles facing a potential victim in one of these films is not that much of an intellectual stretch”.

And, yes, most of us aren’t battling with masked axe-murders or lying awake at night worrying about the demon in the attic, but even these seemingly unrelateable experiences can trigger our sympathies, perhaps by activating our deepest fears.  Innes argues that “Often times… it is more instructional to illustrate these similarities by making them seem entirely dissimilar on the surface, but relying on underlying emotion to draw the parallel”.

It’s not only the victim that we might relate to either. Sometimes the rage of the antagonist, his desire to teach somebody a lesson, or his wild abhorrence of the rules, may be what triggers that feeling of connection within us. Innes writes that “often times, the protagonist is also hyper-intelligent, but fatally flawed, playing on an individual‟s tendency toward transference with regard to their shortcomings to drive the audience toward identifying with the villain”.

Though being able to relate to the film is an important component in the success of the genre, another is its stark distinctions from reality. We can separate ourselves from the terror when we’re seated comfortably on the sofa, safe in the knowledge that the nightmare on the screen is a work of fiction. The unrealistic nature of the horrors on our TV allows us to engage with the subject in a non-threatening way and scares us into, eventually, feeling a comfortable and warm feeling of relief when we can eventually switch off the film and do something else.

Kristine Fellizar quotes Dr. Katherine Brownlowe, an assistant professor in the departments of neurology and psychiatry at The Ohio State University College of Medicine for Bustle:

The experience of your brain calming itself down after watching a scary movie is actually neuro-chemically very pleasurable,” she says. “That’s because the dopamine release related to the ‘rest-and-digest’ brain response causes an increased sense of well-being.”

Like with a roller coaster, or sky-diving, it can feel really good to come out of a situation that seemed risky or dangerous and realise you’re okay.

“It challenges our beliefs about risk,”says Brownlowe. “In some ways, it can ‘re-set the thermostat’ for people so that things that had seemed intimidating may be easier to deal with in the future.”

In that regard, it’s not hard to understand why the experience of being frightened can be so cathartic, even potentially improving our ability to overcome every day troubles. We love to be scared, through film anyway, because it makes all our real life fears seem milder in comparison and simultaneously serves as a very efficient way to relieve stress.

But there’s one more great side-effect of watching movies that freak you out: experiencing fear together could actually strengthen your relationship with your partner. In a Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article, Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. argued that some evidence shows that situations of high-anxiety and fear can increase the attraction between two people. Not only that, but it’ll give you an excuse to snuggle up – a great way to increase and maintain intimacy.

“Some think that scary movies accesses a deeper part of our collective consciousness as humans,” Brownlowe adds. “It draws us closer when we have a shared experience of being afraid of the dark, or ghouls, or axe murderers.”

So really, it’s no wonder so many of us love to be scared. It doesn’t make us strange for inviting people over just to watch all our favourite horror movies, nor are we weird for enjoying the chills we get on the back of our necks when the protagonist goes down into the basement (even though we know it’s going to end badly).

Quite the contrary – we love to be scared because, on a number of levels, it also makes us feel good. Quite simply, it makes us human.

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