The Science of Why We Love Scary Movies
From turning on spooky classics like 'Night of the Living Dead' to binge-watching frightful shows like 'Stranger Things' on Netflix, here’s why we can’t get enough of the things that scare us.
Love them or hate them, you probably have an opinion about scary movies.
Maybe you’re a hardcore fan, and you’re thrilled by the recent spate of critically acclaimed mainstream horror films: Get Out, Nope, The Lighthouse, Midsommar, Mandy, It Follows, The Witch. Maybe you can’t imagine voluntarily subjecting yourself to two hours of torturous tension. Or maybe you land somewhere in between: You watch horror movies through your fingers and leap at each jump scare, but love them regardless. Guess what: It’s not just that you have perverse taste in movies. There are both physiological and psychological reasons behind the desire to get spooked.
A Brief History of Thrills and Chills
“Horror has been with us from the very beginnings of recorded culture,” says Darryl Jones, a doctor of philosophy and a professor of popular literature at Trinity College in Dublin and the author of Sleeping With the Lights On: The Unsettling Story of Horror. Dr. Jones points to classical Greek tragedies, with all their violence, mayhem, and gore, as some of the earliest examples of horror fiction.
More recently — but before horror movies were a “thing” — people flocked to experiences such as Russian ice slides (a precursor to the modern-day roller coaster), and P.T. Barnum’s famous Museum of Oddities, which featured exhibits such as a mummified mermaid (actually a monkey torso sewn to a fish tail, per Barnum’s 1855 autobiography, but audiences were delighted nonetheless). In Philadelphia, Thomas Dent Mütter’s museum has drawn crowds to browse his collection of macabre medical curiosities for over 150 years.
The popularity of these experiences reflects the public’s desire to be thrilled — but only as long as these thrills are safely framed as entertainment, says Margee Kerr, PhD, a sociologist in Pittsburg and the author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. “Much like modern haunts, customers line up to challenge themselves and their resilience and dare each other to enter the freak shows to face the scary scenes and abnormalities,” she says.
Fight-or-Flight Mode: The Secret to a Love of Horror?
The idea of voluntarily participating in things that scare you isn’t new — the only thing that’s changed is the preferred media. Today we may have the opportunity to visit the occasional museum of oddities or house of horror come Halloween. But mostly we get our scary fixes from scary movies: Between 1995 and 2022, horror was the sixth most popular movie genre in the United States and Canada, according to market research company Statista, raking in over $13 billion in that period.
So what is it about horror that audiences find so spellbinding? Part of it has to do with physiology. We’ve all heard of “fight-or-flight," in which the sympathetic nervous system responds to a perceived threat. Dr. Kerr describes it as our body “ramping us up into ‘go’ mode.” Watching a scary movie can trigger this response, because you perceive a threat more quickly than you can distinguish whether it’s real or imagined.
This involuntary response can have a major effect on your body, causing it to release adrenaline. The effects of this uptick, Kerr says, include “increased respiration, increased heart rate, [and] sweating.” These physiological changes increase the oxygen supply to our brain and muscles, says Steven Schlozman, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the co-director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, who is based in Boston. (His brain-knowledge cred is backed up by his recent novel, The Zombie Autopsies.)
From a survival perspective, these effects improve verbal and cognitive performance, giving you the mental boost you need to find your way out of a scary situation. And Kerr says fight-or-flight mode can also cause the release of “a host of chemicals — like neurotransmitters and hormones — that kick our metabolism into high gear.”
One example of these chemicals is endorphins — painkillers that your body produces naturally whose feel-good effects have been compared with morphine. “[These endorphins are] blocking pain, so even if we do get hurt, we won’t feel it as intensely,” Kerr notes. Your body’s production of this chemical can be caused by exercise, emotional stress, pain, orgasm, even consumption of spicy food and chocolate — and watching a really terrifying movie can trigger the same effect.
Another chemical that Dr. Schlozman says you can expect to experience during a scary situation is dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that communicates messages across different parts of the body and carries with it pleasurable feelings similar to those imparted by endorphins. One study published in June 2018 in the journal Nature Communications suggested that over time, exposure to dopamine may actually lessen our overall reaction to fear.
It Was All in His Head: Your Brain on Horror
So if that’s what’s happening in our bodies when we’re afraid, what’s going on in our heads? According to Schlozman, your brain has a lot to process in a frightening situation. “We start to assess the threat,” he says. “Have I seen this or anything like this before? What happened when I did see this? Am I revved up because this is familiar or novel? How are people around me responding?”
But this, he says, is where things start to differ between a real threat and a perceived one. When you're watching a movie, deep down, you still realize that it’s just a movie — and so even though you’re perceiving an objectively scary situation, you’re enjoying the pleasant effects of the endorphins and the heightened oxygen to your brain without any actual immediate threat present.
“If you happen to like scary movies, then you settle in, [and] enjoy the scare the way you enjoy a roller coaster,” says Schlozman. “If the threat is real, you do the same kind of thing, but you don’t, in most instances, enjoy the experience.” Even when we know the threat is not real, he says, there is fun to be had in challenging ourselves to see whether we can handle it.
And when the threat is real, horror fans might actually find that they’re better equipped to handle the stress. A survey of 322 people, published January 2021 in Personality and Individual Differences, suggested that participants who enjoyed horror and pandemic-related fiction were more psychologically resilient during, and more likely to feel prepared for, the COVID-19 pandemic.
There’s also a very specific kind of mental stimulation that can come from watching things that scare you. “While horror takes us back to our bodies, it is also a highly intellectual form,” says Jones. “It asks us very serious questions about, for example, the social function of violence, the abominations of social and economic inequality, the state of your soul, your place in the universe, the problem of the existence of evil in a world supposedly governed by divine grace, and is the earth doomed? These are some of the most serious questions we face, and they will be familiar to any reader or viewer of horror.”
Many of us also enjoy horror as a comment on society. The things we see in horror movies are often a reflection of our world and ourselves — and it allows us to explore wider themes through the socially acceptable filter of things that go bump in the night.
Try watching Dawn of the Dead as a critique of “unbridled consumerism,” as Schlozman puts it; It Follows as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unprotected sex; and The Babadook as a story about the repression of grief. Once you realize that almost every horror movie (we’re not talking about you, Killer Klowns From Outer Space) has something to say about society, watching horror becomes a fun (and maybe even more frightening) way to exorcise our demons.
Kerr advocates for horror as a means of mental self-stimulation, suggesting that approaching new, frightening experiences “with an attitude of curiosity and exploration and self-challenge” can be a great way to manage stress and improve problem-solving abilities.
“It’s normal to be intrigued by things that scare us,” she says. “Horror allows us to engage with our fears from a safe distance.”
3 Beginner’s Tips for Enjoying Horror
If all this sounds good to you, but you’re still uncertain how to approach the genre, fear not. We’ve collected the experts’ tips for how to make your horror movie experience frightfully enjoyable.
1. Ask 'Why?'
Schlozman recommends that apprehensive horror viewers make a puzzle out of the experience. “Ask yourself, Why is the film scary? Why not? What tricks do the director and writer employ? And most importantly, What is the theme? What does the film say about our culture?”
2. Start Slow
Kerr says you don’t need to rush into horror. “Try starting with PG-13 comedy horrors where there’s a good balance of lighthearted absurdity and horror, and find content that’s a little further from reality. Approach it with an attitude of curiosity and exploration and self-challenge.”
3. Choose by Context
Jones says enjoying a horror movie is all about the context: “There are some horror genres, like old-school ghost stories, that work best when encountered alone, preferably late at night.” Meanwhile, he describes other subgenres as “participatory or even communal experiences,” which should be watched with other people for maximum effect.
What to Watch: Our Experts’ Horror Picks
Want to dip your toe into the dark waters of horror movies and TV, but don’t know where to start? Here are a few recommendations.
If you’re interested in the classics, Schlozman recommends Night of the Living Dead (1968), the first of the zombie genre, which he describes as “truly a masterpiece.” He also suggests The Blair Witch Project (1999), a low-budget indie flick featuring a few college students on a quest to document the legend of a witch; the film “still scares the heck out of me,” Schlozman says. Among more recent releases, he suggests It Follows (2014), in which a teenage girl is haunted by a supernatural entity, and The Babadook (2014), in which a sinister book character comes to life and haunts a mother and her young son — “[these two] are in a class of their own, both for very different reasons.”
Are you the type to lose yourself in a Netflix binge? In that case, Jones says novices could do worse than Stranger Things (2016-), a series set in the ’80s that features a group of teens fighting a supernatural world that threatens to take over the planet, and “which is obviously made with great affection, skill, and care.” Another popular Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House (2018), about a family haunted by the previous occupants of a house, received critical acclaim upon its release, and was followed by a second series called The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020). If those two stories sound familiar, it’s because they’re based on two must-read novels in the horror canon: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James.