What we want from horror is a cardiac jump-start, study suggests

A study looks at the ingredients of a good scare.

What we want from horror is a cardiac jump-start, study suggests
Credit: Nathan Wright/Unsplash
  • Researchers from a Danish Recreational Fear Lab investigate fear's Goldilocks zone.
  • People love a good fright that stops short of being genuinely worrisome.
  • The study tracks the heart rates of haunted-house visitors.

    • There's been a fair amount of research into why people enjoy being scared by movies, haunted houses, and so on. A recent study looked at a good fright's capacity for creating a sort of arousal, a euphoria that lowers our brain's stress levels. Of course, being genuinely frightened by actual danger isn't so much of a rush.

      So, what's too frightening and what's just frightening enough to be enjoyable? A new study accepted for publication though not yet published in the journal Psychological Science from researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark attempts to scare up an answer. It comes from the school's Recreational Fear Lab.

      "By investigating how humans derive pleasure from fear," lead author Marc Malmdorf Andersen of the school's Interacting Minds Center tells Newswise, "we find that there seems to be a 'sweet spot' where enjoyment is maximized."

      Catching fear in a bottle

      Credit: Photo Boards/Unsplash

      Previous studies have tracked physiological signs of fear arousal, but none have established a one-to-one correlation between that arousal and specific, actual fear events.

      Andersen says that much of the research has been conducted in lab settings with weak fear stimuli, observing subjects as they experience things like scary videos. Scares in these situations tend to be weak and difficult to measure. Even harder to track in these situations is the link between enjoyment and fear.

      Eyes everywhere

      Andersen and his colleagues conducted their experiments at Dystopia Haunted House, a commercial attraction in Vejle, Denmark constructed in an old, run-down factory. The Recreational Fear Lab has a long-standing partnership with the spook shack.

      They outfitted 100 volunteers with heart monitors and sent them on their terrifying way through the 50-room horror mansion. The facility incorporates a number of fright mechanisms including frequent jump scares in which a sudden threat takes a visitor by surprise.

      Researchers surreptitiously observed their participants on closed-circuit video as they made their way through the attraction. They tracked each individual's scares, scoring them for intensity according to their visible reactions. After exiting the attraction, individuals self-reported their experiences in the haunted house.

      Combining these self-reports with observer notes and each participant's heart-rate data gave the researchers subjective, behavioral, and physiological insights into the ways in which fear is experienced, and when it's a good thing or not.

      A pair of inverted U-shapes

      In analyzing their data, the researchers saw two separate inverted u-shape curves. One depicted participants' enjoyment based on their self-reports and observed behavior. A similar u-curve was detected in their heart rates showing that just the right amount of heartbeat acceleration is associated with fun, but too much is too much. It's the terror Goldilocks zone.

      Says Andersen, "If people are not very scared, they do not enjoy the attraction as much, and the same happens if they are too scared. Instead, it seems to be the case that a 'just-right' amount of fear is central for maximizing enjoyment."

      The research suggests that being scared is enjoyable when it represents just a quick minor physiological deviation from one's normal state. When it goes on too long, however, or triggers too severe a physiological change, it becomes disturbing. Game over.

      Andersen notes that this is not dissimilar to the factors known to make interpersonal play enjoyable: just the right amount of uncertainty and surprise. These are, maybe not coincidentally, also the ingredients of a successful joke.


      No, the Yellowstone supervolcano is not ‘overdue’

      Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.

      Ash deposits of some of North America's largest volcanic eruptions.

      Image: USGS - public domain
      Strange Maps
      • The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
      • Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
      • The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
      Keep reading Show less

      Smartly dressed: Researchers develop clothes that sense movement via touch

      Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.

      Technology & Innovation

      In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.

      Keep reading Show less

      Do you worry too much? Stoicism can help

      How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.

      Stoicism can help overcome anxiety

      Credit: OLIVIER DOULIERY via Getty Images
      Personal Growth
      • Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
      • It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
      • By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
      Keep reading Show less
      Quantcast