Why Some of Us Love a Scary Movie (and Some of Us Watch from Between our Fingers)

It’s spooky season! When you watch a horror movie, do you watch it from the gaps between your fingers spread over your eyes?  Or are you the type to keep your eyes open and cheer for every gruesome and gory splatter?  Why do we like scary movies and stories at all?  Or for that matter, why do we put ourselves through things like haunted houses, eating super-hot chilis, and skydiving?  The science of psychology, aided by recent advances in brain imaging, has some biological explanations for why we seek thrills and chills. 

On the surface, we have what is termed a “hedonic paradox” here.  If humans generally tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain, why do we sometimes welcome, or even enjoy, emotional pain and fear?  Researchers at the Department of Biology and Clinical Psychology at the University of Jena in Germany showed test subjects horror movies while the subjects were scanned in an fMRI machine.  They discovered that people who had already scored high on a quiz to identify the personality trait of “sensation seeking” showed brain activity in brain regions associated with arousal and visual processing when looking at horror scenes, but also less brain reaction to neutral scenes.  One conclusion drawn from this study is the idea that “sensation seeking” people are just not as stimulated by or interested in normal every day reality, so they seek out thrilling or scary departures from normality. 

Another study indicates that people who seek the strange, the unusual, and the frightening may be getting an extra dopamine hit from it.  When we are scared, our brains release both dopamine and adrenaline to prepare us for the fight or flight response.  People who enjoy being scared may lack a chemical “brake” on the release and re-uptake of dopamine, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter in the brain.  That means they experience more pleasure from scary or risky experiences because their brain is receiving more dopamine. 

As for people who watch horror movies under a blanket, through their fingers, or not at all because they know they’ll have nightmares, research indicates that this behavior is more common in individuals who score higher for empathy and empathic traits.  Another study from Germany found that empathic people are more likely to automatically put themselves in the victim’s shoes and so identify with the people being threatened and hurt.  They are more likely to try to distract themselves while watching by covering eyes or hunkering down to a smaller shape.  Their skin temperature even drops, a sign of negative or unpleasant arousal. People who have less empathic traits find it easier to believe “it’s just a movie,” and open up to enjoy the thrills as they watch.  Which one are you?  Whether you are empathic, high sensation seeking, or somewhere in between, we at High Touch High tech wish you the release of many feel-good chemicals this spooky season.  Happy Halloween!

Sources and Further Reading:

MRI study on Sensation Seeking Individuals and Horror: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19585588/

The Psychology of Fright: https://theconversation.com/trick-or-treat-the-psychology-of-fright-and-halloween-horrors-49800

Fear and the Brain: https://theconversation.com/scared-out-of-your-mind-halloween-fear-and-the-brain-33261

For Sensation Seekers who are Thinking a Scary Movie Sounds Great Right About Now: https://www.imdb.com/list/ls062655785/

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