Let's Talk About It: Why Do We Love Being Scared?

September 29, 2015

If you’ve followed me for a while (or, heck, a day), you know that I’m a big fan of horror. Now that the air is getting crisper and the daylight wanes that much sooner each evening, I want nothing more than to curl up with a big mug of something warm and all the creepy-crawly literature I can get my hands on. At my current pace, the highest-level R.I.P. X challenge won't be enough to slake my thirst this season.

Happily for my books read count, my love for horror is almost exclusive to literature. I enjoy a horror movie every now and again—give me all of the psychological terror—but I'll pass on buckets of blood and endless jump scares. I’m not nearly as picky when it comes to my books; really graphic gore and intense physical or sexual violence can get to me sometimes (especially with animals, don't hurt the animals), but, otherwise, it’s all fair game.

While I’m happy to indulge my appetite for the macabre, I couldn’t tell you where this love comes from. Not long ago—when I was in the middle of a particularly scary selection—I told my former therapist Lisa about it. She seemed puzzled and even a bit concerned by my interest, especially when it turned out I didn’t exactly know why I enjoyed it so much. Knowing full-well how popular a genre horror is and not feeling inclined to attribute it to pathology, I mostly blew off her reaction, but it came back to me the other night when I admitted to my boyfriend that I scared myself listening to IT while home alone. “You know, I might be with Lisa on this,” he said. Again, I resisted, but it did get me thinking. Why do I (and so many others) love being afraid?

A quick Google search turns up dozens of articles on why we like to scare ourselves (unsurprisingly, it’s a pretty popular topic in October), and many agree that part of it is the thrill we get from triggering our fight-or-flight response in a completely safe situation. Adrenaline, dopamine and endorphins galore, and nothing to run from or fight off—what's not to like? One piece even argues we might be addicted to that particular chemical cocktail. If we can get all of the pleasure with none of the effort (i.e., exercise, drugs, a life-threatening situation), why wouldn't we?

Anecdotally, this seems plausible. As an anxious person with some trauma in her past, I’m all too familiar with this particular flood of neurotransmitters. Instead of wanting to avoid these feelings of paralysis and fear, the hallmarks of situations I could do nothing to change, maybe I can't get enough of them, especially when they come from a stimulus I can control. After all, I can always close the book. Still, I can't help but feel (perhaps inaccurately) that there's more to it than that. After all, if it's mostly a chemical thing, why would my brain differentiate between getting my thrills from scary books and scary films? Is it something to do with the visual cortex?

All right, enough armchair neuroscience. If you are a fan of horror, I’d love for you to weigh in: why do you like the genre? Is it all chemicals, or is something else going on here? Is this something you’ve thought about, or would you rather not question your penchant for the eerie?

Talk to me!

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