Why is Fear So Much Fun?

Two carved pumpkins with mischievous faces. 

Do you like scary movies? I love them even more than I love free seminar food. Re-watching favorite horror films is a much-anticipated October tradition at my house. It isn’t Halloween until we’ve huddled beneath blankets in our darkened living room, white-knuckling a bowl of popcorn and pretending we didn’t just jump during that horrific closet scene in The Ring. And with more than 46 million horror movie tickets sold last year, it’s safe to say that we aren’t the only people in search of a good scare. But why is the spooky so appealing?

The fear caused by horror movies is created in the brain via several pathways collectively divided into two groups: the ‘low road’ and the ‘high road’. The low road acts quickly, transmitting sensory information to the thalamus and then directly to the amygdala. Because the amygdala cannot distinguish a real threat (like an intruder in your bathroom) from a fake one (like Norman Bates on screen), it signals the hypothalamus to initiate a fight-or-flight response in case your life is in danger. The high road, however, takes more time, as it transmits sensory information first through the cortex and hippocampus before it reaches the amygdala. These brain regions carefully interpret the information, providing context and assessing risk. Once they determine that you’re safe on your sofa, they assure the amygdala that there is no real danger and the fear response is turned off.

So as you watch Freddie slash his way through Elm Street, sensory data follows both roads at the same time. And since the low road is fastest, you experience a momentary surge of terror before the high road arrives to help you relax. In this way, horror movies create a state of controlled fear wherein the viewer can experience the exhilarating effects of fight-or-flight in a completely safe, non-threatening environment.

But why is the stress of fight-or-flight pleasurable?

One answer may be found in the theory of excitation-transfer, proposed by Dr. Dolf Zillmann in the early 1970s and refined by him over the next three decades. According to Zillmann, residual excitation from nearly any emotional reaction can intensify subsequent emotions. This means that the physiological arousal experienced during a scary movie (such as increased heart rate, blood pressure and respiration) will linger after the film has ended, and any positive emotions you experience during that time (such as cuddling with your crush) will be stronger. Often, the enjoyable feeling of relief at the end of a sudden scare is as powerful as the terror felt just moments prior. And it is these vivid, positive emotions that movie-viewers remember most. It should come as no surprise that people experience increased bonding after sharing a stressful experience, making excitation-transfer an excellent reason to select one of these screenings for your next Tinder date.

Another good reason? People often misinterpret the physiological arousal resulting from fear as sexual arousal, causing them to perceive a potential partner as more attractive.  This phenomenon was initially demonstrated by Drs. Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron in 1974, when they asked male subjects to walk across one of two bridges spanning a river: one, a sturdy wooden bridge with high handrails about 10 feet above a small rivulet; or the other, a swaying suspended bridge with low wire handrails tilting precariously 230 feet above rocky rapids.

At the end of the bridge, each man was met by a female interviewer who instructed him to complete a brief questionnaire and provided him with her name and phone number in case he “wanted to talk further.” Fifty percent of the men who had crossed the rickety bridge later called the female interviewer, compared to only 12.5 percent of those who had crossed the sturdy bridge. Taken in conjunction with the results of their questionnaires, it was clear that more of the men who met the interviewer during a state of fear-heightened arousal had found her attractive.

In light of this evidence, allow me to revise my initial question. What’s not to like about scary movies? Who wouldn’t like a film that leaves you exhilarated, enhances friendships, and makes your date a little bit sexier? If you want to reap some fright-filled benefits this Halloween, grab some popcorn (and someone special) and check out one of these chilling films shot right here in Chicago. I personally recommend Candyman, as it features the UIC campus and some readers might find the main character relatable — she’s a UIC grad student trying to make it out alive.