Are you the sort of person that loves horror films? Or do you hide behind a cushion at the scary parts? Psychologists call the behaviour of people who love scary movies sensation-seeking. But what draws some of us to risky and scary stuff and not others?

The Science of Sensation-Seeking

I remember I have always loved scary movies. From a young age, I would beg my parents to let me stay up late to watch Dracula films or the old Hammer House of Horror movies. There was one in particular – The Abominable Dr Phibes – starring the Prince of Horror – Vincent Price, which absolutely terrified me.

In the film, Dr Phibes used various tortuous means to kill off his enemies. In one, he drilled a hole in the ceiling of the bedroom of a drugged victim, poured honey through the hole and then let locusts loose to devour her face.

That night, I slept with a blanket over my head. In another gruesome scene, he attended a masked ball. He fixed a frog mask so that when it snapped shut it continued to keep closing, eventually snapping the neck of the victim.

I was around 10 when I watched these films. Despite pleading with mum and dad and them giving in, I would have dreadful nightmares after watching scary films. Every night, I would beg to watch another horror film.

One night, I was absolutely terrified so I kept the light on and played music all night. But still, I kept watching.

So, can science explain this morbid fascination with my constant needing to frighten myself? Well, yes. Psychologists call it sensation-seeking. Furthermore, there are two ways people become sensation seekers, nature and nurture.

Some people are born with a lower fear threshold

Fear comes from the most reptilian area in our brain – the amygdala. This is the oldest part that triggers the automatic fight or flight response. When this happens, our heart beats faster, adrenaline courses through our bodies, and our breathing becomes rapid and shallow.

Now, for some of us, these symptoms are excruciating. In fact, just one episode of a fight or flight response or panic attack can lead to a lifelong phobia.

However, other people are not affected. You could say that they have a higher tolerance for fear. As a result, they tend to seek out sensations that cause these feelings in their bodies. So people that favour extreme sports like sky diving or bungee jumping are seeking these extreme fear sensations to get the same effect normal people do.

Can you experience fear and pleasure at the same time?

The ‘nature’ answer would explain why it is possible for some people to experience positive and negative emotions at the same time.

Initially, experts believed that some people enjoy feeling scared because of the relief at the end. As humans, we are programmed to seek out pleasure and avoid pain at any cost. As such, it is not feasible for us to experience a negative experience as a positive one.

But studies show that sensations seekers are ‘happy to be unhappy’. It all depends on the situation. For example, if we feel safe enough, i.e. watching a film, or riding a roller-coaster, we can relax and revel in the horror.

“When individuals who typically choose to avoid the stimuli were embedded in a protective frame of mind, such that there was sufficient psychological disengagement or detachment, they experienced positive feelings while still experiencing fearfulness.” Study authors – Eduardo B. Andrade and Joel B. Cohen

Sensation-seekers are not psychopaths

This detachment is very important. Before all you non-sensation-seeking folks start labelling us as psychopaths, let me tell you about one interesting study.

This study (McCauley, et al, 1994) conducted research on disgust. Real-life documentaries depicting actual horrors were shown to college students. In graphic detail, cows were stunned, killed and slaughtered. A live monkey’s head was struck with a hammer and its brain offered up as a meal. The final video showed the facial skin of child peeled back for surgery. 90% of the students turned off the video before it had finished.

Yet, these same individuals would pay good money to watch a gory horror film with much more horror and violence than depicted on the videos. The researchers concluded that the students knew the films were fiction.

Therefore, they had a psychological barrier between the horror action and themselves. The fiction allowed them a distance. As a result, they are detached and in control. And it is this sense of fiction that gives us the freedom to seek this sensation of fear.

“In fact, there is evidence that young viewers who perceive greater realism in horror films are more negatively affected by their exposure to horror films than viewers who perceive the film as unreal (Hoekstra, Harris, & Helmick, 1999).”

Some people learn to seek out fear

So that’s the nature explanation, but what about nurture? Can we learn sensation-seeking behaviour? Experts think we can, and I can relate to this.

Growing up, I didn’t have a great relationship with my mother. She was cold and distant throughout my childhood. But, the one thing she loved was horror films. Perhaps something in me, even at a young age, knew that I could bond with her if we watched them together. Even though they scared me to death, watching them together did create a sense of closeness.

“I once had a client who shared with me that when they were young they used to watch scary movies alongside their mother, and this made them feel safe and that sometimes they even laughed together at the scary scenes,” Kelley Hopkins-Alvarez, a licensed professional counsellor.

Studies show it is how you feel afterwards is important. For example, if you watch a scary film with friends and then laugh about it, then that is what you take away from the experience. Not the scary parts of the movie. You’ll remember the friendship parts.

This is because our bodies remain in a heightened aroused state. As a result, emotions are intensified. Our friendships seem more intense. Consequently, our experiences after the scary event are cemented in our brains as positive.

On the other hand, if our experiences are negative, we will associate this negative feeling with the scary film.

Final Thoughts

People like to watch scary films for many different reasons. Sometimes we just like what we like and there’s no explanation. For me, it taps into my fascination with the dark triad and evil people. All I know that I will always be a fan of the horror film. And the scarier, the better!

References:

  1. www.psychologytoday.com
  2. www.apa.org
  3. www.tandfonline.com

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