Nobody wants to feel frightened, yet at the same time, people want to get scared just for fun. We don't want to see ghosts, but we will watch horror flicks and scream at the top of our lungs. Or we’ll visit a haunted house, knowing that at some point, something or someone will jump out and scare us half to death. The question is, why?

Why Do People Watch Horror Films?

Many people adore horror movies and go to the theatre to be frightened, whether by vengeful spirits or zombies. Despite frights that may make them jump out of the seat, moviegoers stay until the end of the film. They do not care how gory, upsetting or vomit-inducing these movies are. As long as they can satisfy their craving for being scared, they'll gladly pay to get an hour or two of excitement.

There are several reasons, starting with that adrenaline rush, according to the author of an article in Psychreg, an online psychology journal.

Being scared gives us a rush of adrenaline, a hormone that can make one feel excited, alert and responsive, wrote psychologist Elizabeth Kaplunov, PhD.

Another reason is enjoyment of the plot. Horror, mystery and suspense/thriller movies usually have clever “unknowns” to lead on the audience. To make them believable, the storyline must creatively connect these unknowns, which the audience often sees as plot twists.

And last, but not least, is the therapeutic value for people who have phobias. A horror movie may mimic a real-life threat or fear. Moviegoers may learn some control over their reactions without going head-to-head with the object of their phobia. Though horror films are not for the faint-hearted.

The Study

Researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark examined why many people play with fear. They recruited 100 individuals to take part in a trip to a haunted house with nearly 50 rooms designed to frighten visitors. Participants were fitted with a heart rate monitor to record their responses in real-time and were observed through cameras to see their reactions when scared. One of the methods used to scare visitors was the “jump scare” – a reaction to when a monstrous abomination or a zombie either appears suddenly or charges toward participants.

"By investigating how humans derive pleasure from fear, we find that there seems to be a 'sweet spot' where enjoyment is maximized. Our study provides some of the first empirical evidence on the relationship between fear, enjoyment, and physical arousal in recreational forms of fear," said Marc Malmdorf Andersen, PhD, in a press release by the Association for Psychological Science.

After the tour of the haunted house, researchers asked participants about their experience. They compared the self-reports to the data from heart rate monitors and cameras. This allowed them to evaluate fear-related and fun-related elements of the tour on subjective, behavioral and physiological levels. Researchers wanted to know how going to a haunted house and getting scared would affect a person's body.

What they discovered was the “Goldilocks zone.” The term is commonly used in astronomy to describe a habitable zone around a star with a temperature just right for liquid water to exist. When it comes to recreational fear, people apparently find a sweet spot with just the right amount of spook to pump adrenaline.

This sweet spot is very fragile. If people are not spooked, they will likely show disappointment on their faces, particularly after touring a haunted house. If they get frightened to almost fainting, the experience may traumatize them. In the first case, they may end up bored and frustrated, while in the second, they may never go to a haunted house ever again.

Researchers found that pulse rates going up and down during the tour reflected physical responses to recreational fear. The short burst of fear – the up and down of pulse rates over short periods – is likely enjoyable. People have enough time to take a deep breath, laugh about it and compose themselves for the next challenge. However, a long burst of fear – frequent up and down of pulse rates over extended periods – is likely unpleasant. People may fail to recover from the scare, get consumed by fear and leave.

How Fear Stays in Recreation

Fear is generally not welcome. But there are situations where fear can have a positive effect.

Don Saucier, PhD, at Kansas State University explained how fear may turn into a positive force:

  • Fear motivates survivability. When scared, you try to keep yourself safe. If you're scared of heights, fear tells you that you can fall and hurt yourself.
  • Fear empowers competition. Halloween challenges people of different ages to go to haunted houses. If they survive the scary task, they may get the bragging rights of being the sole survivor. That can boost confidence and help manage fear.
  • Fear inspires unity. Being scared alone is not the same as being scared together. When the survival instinct kicks in, fear may cause several people to join forces, which can increase feelings of hope and confidence.

For most, playing with fear is generally safe. You may use it to train yourself to handle some scary things. If in doubt, you can always consult a psychology expert to find creative ways to combat fear.

Ralph Chen is an enthusiast of medical topics and advanced technologies. When not writing, he spends time playing popular PC games.