A study looks at the ingredients of a good scare.
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.
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.
Psychologists discover why people participate in scary attractions.
- Psychologists link anxiety from ambiguity to why we find some people or situations creepy.
- A study showed that people who go to scary attractions find their moods improving and stress levels lowered.
- Scary situations can produce a euphoria and a sense of achievement.
With Halloween upon us, we are once again reminded that we like to be scared. There's just something about creepy and frightening things that we want to invite them into our lives and even celebrate their existence. Why does that make sense? What is the science behind our desire to be scared?
The reason we find certain people and situations creepy may be linked to the "agency-detection" mechanism that's been proposed by evolutionary psychologists. This an internal "fight or flight" reaction that warns you about a shady person in a dark alley or some other similar threat by heightening your level of arousal and attention. As psychologist Frank T. McAndrew writes in his overview of creepiness studies for Psychology Today, we are programmed to behave a certain way if we think there's an "agent" out there who is intending on doing us harm. And even if the threat doesn't pan out, we react out of an abundance of caution.
McAndrew defines a sense of creepiness as an "anxiety aroused by the ambiguity of whether there is something to fear, and/or by the ambiguity of the precise nature of the threat". We may not know whether the threat is of sexual or physical violence but the uncertainty and the potentiality of that threat is what makes us feel the situation or person causing it is "creepy".
In McAndrew's study on the subject, which recruited 1,341 individual to answer a Facebook survey, his team found that people perceived to be creepy were more likely to be male. Females, in fact, are more likely to view creepy people as posing a sexual threat. Abnormal physical characteristics and nonverbal behaviors contributed to the sense of creepiness.
The study also identified which professions we find creeper than others. At the top of the creepy occupations list were clowns, taxidermists, sex-shop owners and funeral home directors. From a cultural standpoint, we've certainly seen enough popular movies about such characters. One of the current box office champions is IT 2. One of the most famous horror films of all time? Hitchcock's "Psycho" which features a taxidermist as the main villain.
IT 2 Final Trailer (2019)
Interestingly, among the hobbies people found creepy were collecting things like insects, dolls or body parts like teeth, bones or fingernails. "Watching" was also considered a creepy hobby, be it watching children, taking pictures of people or even bird watching.
While we may know what we find creepy, some of us certainly enjoy a good scare. What can science tell us about the desire for such a response? Being scared creates a certain kind of high, supported by a recent study published in the journal Emotion. The researchers looked at so-called Voluntary Arousing Negative Experiences (VANE) to discover why we would willingly subject ourselves to frights.
That study looked at 262 adults attending an "extreme" haunted attraction in Pittsburgh called ScareHouse. The participants self-reported on their expectations and emotional reactions to the experience. A 100 of the participants were also assessed via electroencephalography (EEG) to measure their brain activity. The researchers found that about half of the people's moods improved following the attraction, especially among those who reported being bored, tired or stressed out prior to the event. Their "neural reactivity" decreased following the stress of the haunted experience and they were more capable of dealing with subsequent stresses.
Why do we like to be scared? | Dr. Margee Kerr | TEDxFoggyBottomFrom haunted houses to horror films, why do we enjoy being scared? Sociologist Dr. Margee Kerr reconsiders the physical and psychological effects of fear on ...
In an interview with Time magazine, Margee Kerr, a sociologist who specializes in fear and who was involved in the VANE study, described what happens in situations where we voluntarily seek out scary situations as a "kind of euphoria".
"When we're in a safe place, we can interpret that threat response as we do any high arousal response like joy or happiness," said Kerr, "The response is triggered by anything unpredictable or startling. But when we're in a safe place and we know it, it takes less than a second for us to remember we're not actually in danger. Then we switch over to enjoying it. It's a kind of euphoria. That's why you see people go right from screaming to laughing."
She also thinks undergoing a scary experience like a haunted house gives people a sense of achievement, adding "Like any personal challenge, running a 5K or climbing a tree, we stressed [ourselves] and came out okay." Even if the experience was bound to be safe, we still feel accomplished for having participated in it.
Another aspect of scary experiences in a group is the prospect of social bonding. Being scared in collective trimmest the formation of strong memories. The shared scare can make for a night to remember fondly for a long time.
Feeling the urge to scare yourself this Halloween? Here are seven important horror films you have to see.
- This scareful season, make sure to check these seven important horror movies off your to-do list.
- Already an aficionado of fear? The list offers a double-feature option to pair with each classic horror flick.
- With apologies to Hereditary, but I haven't seen it yet.
It's October! That time of year when we are duty bound to indulge in horror movies till we can't sleep with the closet door ajar. If you're looking to indulge your horror habit, we've collected seven of the most important horror movies to check off your watchlist.
For those who have already perused the gothic spires and haunted hallways of these classic terrors, we've paired them with films equally deserving of classic status. Each double-feature shares a particular quality, whether thematic, atmospheric, or cinematographic.
Here are our seven most important horror films (and their double features).
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Le Manoir du Diable
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) represents the best of silent horror. Director Robert Wiene created a German expressionist nightmare with his scenery of vulgar angles and jagged pathways. The story revolves around the titular Dr. Caligari, who uses the sleepwalker Cesare to commit murders. When Cesare kills a villager named Alan, the pursuit of truth eventually leads to the madhouse.
As Roger Ebert writes in his review of the film: "A case can be made that 'Caligari' was the first true horror film. There had been earlier ghost stories and the eerie serial 'Fantomas' made in 1913-14, but their characters were inhabiting a recognizable world. 'Caligari' creates a mindscape, a subjective psychological fantasy. In this world, unspeakable horror becomes possible."
Looking to make a silent evening of it? Then consider Le Manoir du Diable (1896), directed by the inimitable George Méliès. Méliès' short film may be the oldest extant horror film, and it comes with all the trappings: transforming bats, bubbling cauldrons, and demonic tricksters.
But in tone, it could not be more different from Caligari. Whereas Caligari is brooding and unnerving, Méliès' film is a vaudevillian magic show that uses editing to mischievous effect. At just over three minutes, you can also enjoy this piece of horror history on a short coffee break.
The Bride of Frankenstein and The Cat People
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Many of Carl Laemmle Jr.'s horror movies at Universal deserve a place on this list, but the series' crown jewel is The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). After Henry Frankenstein and the monster survive the conflagrated windmill, Henry's mentor, Dr. Pretorius, arrives and forces Henry to begin creating a mate for the Monster, who seeks a friend and confidant.
Director James Whales builds on the excellent foundation of the first Frankenstein (1931) with Gothic architecture that is as grandiose as it is decrepit. Boris Karloff brings even more empathy to the monster this go around, and the bride makes an indelible impression despite her minuscule screen time.
To round out the evening, try Jacques Tourneur's The Cat People (1942). The film tells the story of Irena, a woman who believes she will turn into a man-eating cat if aroused or angered. (Trust us, it's better than it sounds.) Despite a limited budget, The Cat People parallels Bride of Frankenstein in using knife-edged shadows to build suspense and atmosphere. They are also thematically linked over concerns of loneliness and sexual exclusion.
Psycho and The Haunting
Despite directing Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest, and a slew of other classics, Alfred Hitchcock's most successful film is Psycho (1960). It's arguably the first slasher film, and even if it's technically not, a genre pedigree would show it is the father to such gruesome tykes as Black Christmas, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween. (Their mother would be the Italian giallo films. Hey, it was the sixties).
Do I even need to discuss Psycho? The film's mark on our culture, with its vivid imagery and shrill soundtrack, has made it perhaps the most parodied and alluded to movie in history. And that's a shame because Hitchcock wanted the film's twists and turns to surprise each first-time viewer. Well before the days of netiquette, he devised a set of rules to prevent spoiler warnings, including tight schedules, controlled media buzz, and no late admissions permitted.
Not as well-known, but no less deserving of classic status, is Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963). Based on Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House, the story follows two women with purportedly psychic abilities, Eleanor and Theodora, who are invited to live at the haunted Hill House by a scientist wishing to investigate its mysteries.
Both movies trade in anxiety-inducing settings. Like the Bates house, Hill House is claustrophobic despite its size. But The Haunting's terrors are more abstract. Is the house haunted or are the nightmarish happenings the result of Eleanor's deteriorating mental health?
Interestingly, both of these films were remade in the '90s. You can skip those.
The Exorcist and The Babadook
The Babadook (2014)
William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) may be the scariest movie of all time, and this reputation has been bolstered by the many deaths associated with its production, leading to the claim that the film was cursed.
After playing with a Ouija board, young Regan begins to display erratic, vulgar behavior. After consulting a number of physicians, Regan's mother asks Catholic priests to perform an exorcism. But the demon isn't going to give up Regan's soul quietly.
Have you ever seen a demonically possessed child cirque du soleil her way down the stairs? No? Then watch The Exorcist.
If you can uncurl yourself from the fetus positions, you could put on The Babadook (2014) next. In it, Amelia Vanek must raise her son, Samuel, alone after her husband's death in a car accident. Emotionally and physically exhausted, she becomes the target of a monster, demon, whatever called Mister Babadook. But Babadook can't do his grisly deeds himself, and must possess Amelia if he is to have Samuel.
Both films elicit visceral responses in how they put the most vulnerable among us, children, in danger of physical and mental harm. But while The Exorcist's dangers come from a malicious spirit—evil's got to evil, yo—The Babadook's danger comes from the person tasked with caring for Samuel.
Alien and It Follows
Directed by Ridley Scott, Alien follows the crew of the USCSS Nostromo as they investigate a mysterious transmission and accidently let loose a deadly alien aboard their ship. While later sequels rendered the alien just another monster of the week—a less loquacious Zerg—the original's incarnation continues to terrify.
This is partly due to technical limitations forcing Scott to never show it in full. Instead, dark angles and quick cutaways show just enough for your imagination build the rest. But we can't discount H.R. Giger's unsettling design. Sometimes an alien head is just a cigar, but in this case it's definitely a killer penis.
A film that pairs remarkably well with Alien is David Robert Mitchell's It Follows (2014). In it, a girl named Jay sleeps with her boyfriend only to be cursed by the sexual encounter. A shape-shifting creature will now stalk her until either it kills her or she passes on the curse by sleeping with another.
Both movies deal in sexual horrors, but while Alien's monster is a symbol of sexual perversion and evolutionary conquest, It Follows takes a different approach. Jay's is a coming-of-age story. Her monster is the world at large, where natural drives like sex can provide pleasure but also disease, anxiety, and moral compromise.
The Witch (2015)
We all knew The Shining (1980) was going to be here, right? Stanley Kubrick's film is a horror masterclass of unnerving tension.
What more can be said? Jack Nicholson crushes it as, erm, Jack. The imagery has been indelibly seared into our cultural consciousness. Even the carpet has been analyzed to death. But it's Kubrick's use of perspective that makes the film so terrifying, especially with regard to the young and vulnerable Danny.
A good modern pairing for The Shining is The Witch (2015). The Witch tells the story of a colonial family forced to leave the protection of the settlement due to religious differences. Living in the wilderness, they are preyed upon by a coven of witches.
Both movies deal with families in isolation and children harmed by the demons inherent in their guardians. The Witch uses this setup to speak toward the problem of evil. Why would a caring, benevolent god allow them to suffer despite their professed love for him?
Kubrick's film doesn't ask the question so directly, yet it should be noted that no outside force comes to save the Torrance family from its patriarch (Scatman Crothers notwithstanding).
The Thing and Get Out
The Thing (1982)
When John Carpenter's The Thing was released in 1982, critics and audiences called it cynical, disturbing, nihilistic, and all around unpleasant. Today, it's the film cinephiles point to when pining for the days of practical effects and R-rated horror. Go figure.
The Thing opens with American researchers in Antarctica explore the remains of a destroyed Norwegian research station. The only survivor of the Norwegian station, a sled dog, is revealed to be a shape-shifting alien that can imitate any form. To survive, the researchers must kill the creature, which could be any one of them.
Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017) pervades a similar sense of paranoia. Peele's film tells about an African-American man, Chris, spending the weekend with his white girlfriend's upper-class family. While The Thing is about fearing a hidden malevolence within the group, Get Out portrays the group itself as the terrifying presence.
Guillermo del Toro: Why monsters are metaphors
Whatever you do, don't look behind you – because the answer isn't there, says psychologist Alison Gopnik. The real ghosts are glitches in your brain, and in a way, that's even scarier.
According to a 2009 Pew Research survey, 18% of adults in the U.S. say they’ve seen a ghost or at least felt its presence. An even greater number (29%) say they have felt in touch with someone who has died.
Humans have felt presences for at least as long as we have recorded history and, naturally, where there is mystery there are scientists poking and prodding to get to the bottom of it.
So how does this supernatural phenomenon hold up under scientific scrutiny? Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik tells us a spine-chilling story this Halloween, where a bunch of scientists from University Hospital of Geneva ran a neurological study to examine the popular claim of spirit-world sensations. Through a very interesting method, what they found was that patients with a particular kind of damage to their frontoparietal cortex where especially likely to have this ghost sensation, and that our brain can dupe us into feeling things that really aren’t there – we may literally feel a touch on our back due to a brain glitch.
That’s not so scary, right? That’s kind of comforting. Well, Gopnik’s ‘boo!’ moment in this tale comes in the form of a pensive and introspective twist: the frontoparietal cortex is the same brain region that lets us sense our own bodies, and be aware of our own kinesthetic motions. If it can be duped, how do we know that it’s always reliable? How sure are you that your hand is holding a mobile phone, that your thumb is scrolling on the screen, and that you’re tucking it away in your pocket? It feels real, your frontoparietal cortex tells you that’s very real, but this experiment suggests it could very well be an illusion. How confident are you that your sense of your own body is real? It’s something we haven’t got to the bottom of yet.
Alison Gopnik's most recent book is The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children.