The Psychology Behind Why We Love (or Hate) Horror

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Posted on October 6, 2022

Some people LOVE to consume horror. From popular shows like American Horror Story and The Walking Dead to haunted theme parks and scary Steven King novels, we crave all kinds of frightening experiences.

At the same time, fear is not exactly a positive emotion. Lying in bed and binging on It and It Chapter Two, trembling as the darkness pushes in around us — this is not a feeling we would describe as pleasant. Then, what is it about horror that humans are so drawn to? Moreover, why are some of us willing to spend our hard-earned money on a scare while others go great lengths to avoid it?

These are the questions that led us to investigate the booming global horror industry. What better time to share our findings than now, the spookiest time of year?

Why do we consume horror in the first place?

One reason we consume horror is to experience stimulation. Exposure to terrifying acts, or even the anticipation of those acts, can stimulate us — both mentally and physically — in opposing ways: negatively (in the form of fear or anxiety) or positively (in the form of excitement or joy). For instance, watching a horror video simultaneously activates both types of stimulation, with the most pleasure experienced at the most fearful moment. The biochemical inside our bodies also changes when we consume horror. Fright can trigger the release of adrenaline, resulting in heightened sensations and surging energy.

Another reason we seek horror is to gain novel experiences. Apocalypse horror films, for example, allow us to live out alternative realities — from zombie outbreaks to alien infestations. Some novel experiences can even contribute to our sense of accomplishment, like visiting a notorious haunted house. Being adventurous in this way makes us feel more worldly or daring (not to mention grants us bragging rights).

Lastly, horror entrainment may help us (safely) satisfy our curiosity about the dark side of human psyche. After all, in real life, we might not have the opportunity to get to know a Hannibal Lecter or wander the streets during The Purge. As an inherently curious species, many of us are fascinated by what our own kind is capable of. Observing storylines in which actors must confront the worst parts of themselves serves as a pseudo character study of the darkest parts of the human condition.

When can we derive pleasure from consuming horror? 

Research suggests that we must possess a psychological “protective frame” to be able to derive pleasure from being horrified. There are three different categories of such frames.

1) We need to believe that we are physically safe — a safety frame. For example, although the evil entity in a movie might be committing terrifying acts in front of our eyes, we can derive pleasure from the horror as long as we believe that the evil entity is physically distant from us and hence cannot cause harm to us. If, however, we start to believe that the evil entity is coming out of the screen to hurt us, then the experience will no longer be fun.

2) The second category of protective frame involves detachment — whether we can psychologically detach from a horror experience. When we see a psychotic murderer chasing down a bloodied victim in a film, we can activate psychological detachment by reminding ourselves that they are just actors, and great acting is what is happening on the screen.

3) The third category of protective frame involves our confidence in controlling and managing the dangers we encounter. If we visit a haunted house, for instance, and a realistic-looking, blood-thirsty zombie charges at us, we can still derive pleasure from the encounter if we feel confident about overcoming the danger. (“We can easily outrun that slow zombie!”)

Research suggests that the absence of any of these psychological protective frames in the moment reduces the preference for horror consumption, which may explain why some people stay away from spooky movies, books, or events.

Who loves horror more?

There are notable individual differences in how much we are attracted to consuming horror.

Some research indicates that people with a higher sensation-seeking trait (i.e., a stronger need for experiencing thrill and excitement) tend to seek out and enjoy horror-related experiences more. Those with a lower sensation-seeking trait may find those experiences unpleasant and avoid them. Relatedly, the trait of openness to experience (or the need to engage in imaginative activities) is also a predictor of horror consumption — a stronger openness to experience trait is associated with increased affinity towards horror.

In addition, individual differences in empathy are associated with enjoyment of horror. Those who are not so empathic can enjoy horror more. This is because those with a higher level of empathy tend to feel more negatively about the distress situations others experience, like people being tormented by a devious murderer in a film.

Gender and age also appear to matter. One survey found that, on average, younger individuals tend to be more attracted to this scary genre; men are more likely to be fans of horror than women; and women versus men may like different aspects of a horror experience. That is, women may enjoy a horror movie more when it offers a happy ending (e.g., the evil entity ends up destroyed), whereas men may enjoy a horror movie more when it is loaded with intensely terrifying acts.

Lastly, through our research — which analyzed movie box office data of 82 countries — we discovered that the preference for consuming horror may differ across the stages of economic development. We found that individuals from countries with a higher GDP per capita consumed horror movies to a greater extent, but the same pattern was not observed for other movie genres such as romance. The results of our subsequent studies suggest that this pattern occurred because lacking financial resources can degrade the psychological protective frame needed for horror enjoyment.

Are there any benefits to consuming horror?

Beyond the pleasure we get from the scary entertainment, consuming horror may yield a few hidden benefits:

Catalyst for falling in love: Research suggests that consuming horror (e.g., watching a horror movie, visiting a horror theme park) together with a date may facilitate feelings of romance. Why? Co-experiencing horror (like a non-stop pounding heart evoked by scary scenes) can add to the excitement we feel toward each other.

Conduit for social bonding: Consuming horror in a group is a great way to bond and connect with our friends and family. Research suggests that such bonding is linked to oxytocin, which is often released when we are in frightening situations. This hormone facilitates feelings of closeness and affinity among the group members. (Maybe, it’s time to test this out with a horror night with your teammates!)

Post-horror relaxation: While we feel highly stimulated during a horror experience, a sense of relief arrives after a positive conclusion of the experience (e.g., the evil entity gets obliterated), triggering the release of endorphins in our brain. This group of peptides can make us feel relaxed and refreshed.

Understanding the psychology of horror consumption allows us to enjoy the genre more. At the very least, we should get our psychological “protective frame” ready before soaking in all the horror.

Happy Halloween!