Why do we love horror? Fear has a ‘sweet spot’ that makes people enjoy fright

AARHUS, Denmark — When it comes to fear, no other holiday does it quite like Halloween. From zombies to chainsaw-wielding maniacs, many people love to be scared senseless, but why? A study finds fear has a “sweet spot” that can actually cause pleasure for humans. Researchers from Aarhus University say it’s a fine line however, with too much frightful stimuli turning fun into an unpleasant time very easily.

“By investigating how humans derive pleasure from fear, we find that there seems to be a ‘sweet spot’ where enjoyment is maximized,” explains lead author Marc Malmdorf Andersen in a media release. “Our study provides some of the first empirical evidence on the relationship between fear, enjoyment, and physical arousal in recreational forms of fear.”

Study authors say it’s been long suspected that a physiological arousal plays a role in why people find horror movies and haunted houses so appealing. This arousal would include a quickening pulse and a release of hormones in the frightened person’s brain.

“No prior studies have analyzed this relationship on subjective, behavioral, as well as physiological levels,” Andersen explains.

An original and spooky test

To find out how and why this happens, Andersen and his team examined 110 volunteers as they walked through a haunted house in Denmark. Researchers fitted each person with a heart rate monitor to record real-time data as they explored the Halloween attraction. This particular haunted house used various scare tactics including several jump scares; which have zombies or other creatures suddenly pop up and charge at the guests.

Researchers also watched the group live on closed-circuit monitors. This allowed the team to make real-time observations about a participant’s reaction to frightening stimuli. Finally, the group evaluated their own level of fear and enjoyment following their walk through the house.

Looking at all this data, the team finds recreational fear plays a big role in why a little scare can be a fun thing. Researchers say recreational fear is the mixed emotional experience of feeling fear and enjoyment simultaneously. Usually, fear is an unpleasant feeling that has evolved to protect humans from harmful situations.

“Past studies on recreational fear, however, have not been able to establish a direct relationship between enjoyment and fear,” the researcher at the Interacting Minds Center at Aarhus University says. “Conducting our study at a haunted attraction, where participants are screaming with both fear and delight, made this task easier. It also presented unique challenges, such as the immensely complex logistics associated with conducting empirical studies in a ‘messy’ real-world context like a haunted house.”

The ‘Goldilocks zone’ for fear

The results reveal a U-shape curve in terms of fear and enjoyment among the participants. Between heart’s reactions, a person’s own feelings, and the observations of others, humans clearly have a special zone where fear can morph into an enjoyable experience instead of being too boring or too traumatizing.

“If people are not very scared, they do not enjoy the attraction as much, and the same happens if they are too scared,” Andersen explains. “Instead, it seems to be the case that a ‘just-right’ amount of fear is central for maximizing enjoyment.”

“This is strikingly similar to what scientists have found to characterize human play. We know, for instance, that curiosity is often aroused when individuals have their expectations violated to a just-right degree, and several accounts of play stress the importance of just-right doses of uncertainty and surprise for explaining why play feels enjoyable.”

The study appears in the journal Psychological Science.

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