Why we like to be scaredOct 03, 2022 12:45PM ● By Nancy J. Schaaf, RN
In 1956, I was 7 years old and my parents hired a babysitter for my 5-year-old brother and me while they attended the neighborhood block party. The sitter let us watch “The Werewolf,” which terrified both of us enough to have nightmares for days! (Mom was not happy with the sitter!)
Years later, I went to see the movie “Black Sunday.” I still recall the scene where the accused vampire had a mask with spikes on the inside pounded into her face by a man wielding a sledgehammer. Again with the nightmares!
Horror movies are often scary, gross and cause us to fear for our life (or at least the life of the characters). But as disturbing as they may be, watching them is one of the best ways to spend a Friday night, especially in October when gore, ghosts and other dreadful beings dominate.
This staple of the Halloween experience is one of the most enduringly popular film genres since “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” and other talkies of the 1930s. Movie characters also became part of the culture, like Norman Bates in “Psycho” and Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Generally, we try to avoid things that frighten us. So why do we pay to see a movie that evokes fear and terror?
The paradoxical appeal of horror movies arises from three factors: human curiosity towards the morbid and threatening, a mixture of fear and excitement, and learning about our own emotional and dangerous situations safely in the context of movies.
“Fear is there to keep us alive,” said Mary Poffenroth, a San Jose State University biology lecturer and fear scientist.
Fear triggers our fight-or-flight response, and we experience an increased release of adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine—which also happens when we watch scary movies. It’s the same feeling our ancestors had when they encountered a lion or a snake.
With horror movies, we feel in control. Watching movies from our living room stimulates and resolves fear without engaging a real threat, generating a sense of safety. Seeing another person confront and overcome a frightening series of events is also satisfying.
Additionally, most of us will never meet a Hannibal Lecter or Michael Myers; therefore, horror films satisfy our curiosity about the dark side of humanity. There’s a sense of catharsis once the credits roll—like we survived a brief brush with something dark and unexpected. Horror movies and rollercoasters are similar; both take us on a ride that feels dangerous but is intrinsically safe.
10 Scariest Horror Movies
According to Rotten Tomatoes (May 2022)
1. The Exorcist (1973)
2. Hereditary (2018)
3. The Conjuring (2013)
4. The Shining (1980)
5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
6. The Ring (2002)
7. Halloween (1978)
8. Sinister (2012)
9. Insidious (2010)
10. It (2017)