Halloween is the season for celebrating the frightening and macabre. From blockbuster movies to scary novels to haunted house attractions, horror is big business. In fact, the demand for what scientists call “counterhedonic consumption”—seeking out experiences or products designed to evoke negative emotions—has surged in recent decades to become one of the most prevalent and profitable forms of entertainment.
So why do some people love to be scared? Science may hold the answers.
Associate Professor Haiyang Yang, a behavioral scientist at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, explores the factors that drive decision-making. He and colleague Kuangjie Zhang of Nanyang Technological University Singapore have been looking into the reasons why some people can't wait to get scared.
Going to extremes
According to these researchers, stimulation is one of the driving forces behind the consumption of horror. Exposure to terrifying acts like stories of demonic possession or alien infestation can be stimulating both mentally and physically. These experiences can give rise to both negative feelings, such as fear or anxiety, and positive feelings, such as excitement or joy. And we tend to feel the most positive emotions when something makes us feel the most negative ones.
Horror entertainment can also provide a novel experience, like a zombie apocalypse, that doesn't necessarily happen in the real world. At the same time, horror entertainment is a safe way to satisfy a curiosity about the dark side of humanity through storylines and characters facing the darkest parts of the human condition.
Tricks aren't always treats
The question remains as to why some people get a kick out of horror while others do not. Research suggests that those who enjoy horror have a psychological “protective frame” that falls into three categories.
First is a safety frame. Watching a horror film or show means we have to know for sure that we are safe, and that the evil entity is distant and cannot hurt us. The second category of protective frame involves a sense of detachment. We need to be reminded that horror we are seeing is not real—it's just great acting, special effects, and art direction. Finally, the protective frame involves our sense of control and the confidence in managing the dangers we encounter. We can still get a thrill from a good scare if we feel confident about controlling and overcoming the perceived danger.
In order to savor the spooky, we don't have to have all three of these frames. But having fewer than all three tends to turn us off to the idea.