The Horror Paradox: Why Being Scared Can Feel Good

Horror writers and producers of scary movies know that terror sells, but why? Why do people love to be scared?

A Hankerin' for Horror

Your heart is pounding, your hands are clenched, and terror permeates your very being. You are scared to death, petrified to look at the screen or read any further—but it does not get any better than this! Especially if you are one of the horror buffs who saw the movie Saw or if your bookshelves are lined with the works of Stephen King. What draws fans of fear to enjoy a vicarious, leg-wobbling experience from the safety of their favorite armchair or local movie theater?

Profiles of Horror Buffs

Fans from late adolescence and into their 20s make up a large percentage of horror movie buffs. Although more popular among men, a fair share of women enjoy the thrill of being thrilled.

Beyond that there is a particular brand of high sensations seekers who tend to fill theaters when the latest horror and slasher movies hits the big screen. The appeal may be in the amount of shock value they receive. Their tolerance is higher than the average person, who fits a different profile.

The average person standing in line for a ticket prefer the build up of suspense and tension over the blood and guts of a slasher film. Some films hearken back to Alfred Hitchcock's classic film Psycho or Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

There may be a difference between sensation seeker versus a suspense and tension seeker, but in the end they both draw on their ability to empathize—to put ourselves in the character's shoes while taking in the chilling story.

Basic Horror Themes

What constitutes a good scare basically boils down to themes of the supernatural, psychological, or biological that are developed against a backdrop of increasing tension. Horror films allow you to tackle upsetting issues from the safe distance of allegory. This permits a safe confrontation of real fears disguised in a metaphorical form.

Best-selling horror writer Stephen King believes that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Bram Stoker's Dracula lay the foundation for all scary stories. The trio showcases 3 fundamental horror types: man-made, self-made, and back-from-the-dead monsters.

Zombies, vampires, and werewolves are more popular in print, television, and movies than ever before.

Science and Nature

Science and nature running amok is an integral part of the horror movie subgenres. Scientists gone morally wrong in their thirst for knowledge wreak havoc on nature and mankind in such films as Frankenstein and Alien. Japan has contributed largely to this genre with films such as Godzilla. Author Robert Jay Lifton views Japan's monster films and visitors from outerspace films as attempts to come to grips with the real life horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Lifton explains, "These films represent efforts at mastery of nuclear problems by first representing them in exaggerated, partly mocking, fantasy, and then calling upon Japan's unique nuclear experience as a source of wisdom."

The transformation of traumatic experience into a safe reliving of the original trauma is a much-studied phenomenon.

Addiction to Fear

Do some people get an endorphin high from being scared? Yes, some researchers do believe that the typical physical reaction to arousing movies results in the release of opiate endorphins.

Addiction to trauma (such as in viewing frightening films) is tied up in biology. That is, the films rev up the body's sympathetic nervous system, inducing stress and anxiety. In some, the stress is a welcome thrill. The payoff comes when the movie is over. We are flooded with a sense of relief, which makes us feel good and safe once again.

Some researchers theorize that individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may become conditioned by the analgesic effect of certain types of movies and seek out stressful films to release more endorphins.

One group of researchers found that when Vietnam veterans with PTSD were shown combat scenes from the movie Platoon, they experienced a temporary, reversible numbing sensation—much like the effect of opium. This suggests that perhaps people with PTSD have an opioid deficiency that might be relieved by the type of traumatic stimuli produced by horror or war movies.

It is not a theory without dispute. Another researcher contends that we watch horror movies for all kinds of reasons, not necessarily because we are addicted to trauma.

Mary Harvey asserts that combat movies, like Platoon, for example, seem to hold a particular fascination and attraction for many Vietnam veterans, perhaps because the films invite a reliving of the experience. Perhaps exposure to things that keep them scared also help them maintain a needed state of hypervigilance, and perhaps because each new exposure feels like an opportunity to revisit and possibly redo or undo the traumatic response.

It is unclear whether it is the opiate/endorphin response or the need for traumatized people to rework their original trauma—or both—that explains why a subset of people who have PTSD seek out scary entertainment. For that matter, there are many PTSD sufferers who carefully read movie reviews to avoid any subject matter that could trigger painful memories.

Safe and Scared

Perhaps we are all just looking for the same thing—a periodic jolt to the nervous system and a roundabout peek at our innermost fears, all within the comfort of a secure environment.


The Greatest Films


Canadian Psychological Association


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Last reviewed September 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 12/11/2013

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