The Science of Recreational Fear: Why We Love Horror Movies and Other Spooky Thrills

Whether it's a haunted house or a Hollywood horror flick, some of us can't resist a good scare. Emerging research suggests that recreational fear may be a way to safely simulate threats — and can even benefit our mental health.

By Alex OrlandoOct 31, 2023 3:00 PM
Scary horror movie on tv. Scared woman watching stream service hiding under blanket on couch at night. Sleepless person streaming series or film on television. Alone in dark and afraid of thriller.
(Credit: Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock)


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Maybe you’re sprawled on the sofa, clutching the armrest in terror — yet still unable to tear your eyes away — as Freddy Kruger slices his way across the screen in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Or perhaps you’re tiptoeing through a haunted house at a local amusement park, bubbling with nervous anticipation as you walk around every corner. You might even be sitting in the dark of a movie theater, gasping and shrieking at Hollywood’s latest horror flick in unison with dozens of strangers.

Most people tend to avoid things that scare or frighten them. So why, exactly, do some of us shell out money to watch movies and visit attractions designed to trigger feelings of terror?

“What has historically been called the ‘paradox of horror’ is that, on the one hand, people feel a negative, aversive emotion — fear — and on the other hand, a positive, enjoyable emotion at the same time,” says Marc Malmdorf Andersen, co-director of the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University in Denmark.

What Is the Allure of Fear?

Researchers like Andersen have sought to unravel that paradox through rigorous scientific study of what they call recreational fear, or any mixed emotional experience that blends fear and enjoyment.

Their early findings suggest that frightening experiences might help us practice how to deal with scary situations and unpleasant emotions in a safe environment — and that, in certain cases, cozying up for a spooky movie can actually be good for us.

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Why Do People Like Horror Movies?

Not everyone loves horror movies and haunted houses, of course. But the pleasures of a good scare may, in part, be rooted in our basic biology. A 2017 study in the journal Neuron found that the central amygdala, the region of the brain that scientists have long linked to fear, primarily harbors neurons that fuel pleasure-inducing behavior.

“Recreational fear seems to be something that emerges very early in childhood,” says Andersen. “It seems to be something that humans, from a very early age, become interested in. Think of peek-a-boo, which by some has been called the first ‘jump scare’ that children are exposed to. It’s a phenomenon that appears all over the world.”

Why Do Some Brains Enjoy Fear?

The physiology of fear, or what happens in our brains and bodies when we're afraid, can provide some insight into why some of us find it enjoyable.

When faced with a perceived threat — for early humans, this might have involved a face-to-face confrontation with, say, a saber-toothed tiger — our brains send a signal to our endocrine system, triggering a cascade of responses: Your heart thumps faster to better circulate blood. Your breathing ramps up to provide your cells with oxygenated blood. Sweat pools and your muscles tense.

Naturally, some people will go to great lengths to avoid triggering such fight-or-flight (or freeze) responses. But others may enjoy those feelings of what scientists call "sympathetic arousal," and actively pursue experiences that elicit them.

Why Do People Like To Be Scared?

There are other possibilities to explain why we like getting spooked. One emerging theory among horror scholars is that recreational fear can be likened to a type of play, allowing individuals to simulate threats (like living through a zombie apocalypse) and feel negative emotions (such as fear, anxiety, dread, and disgust) without actually being in danger.

As such, people who manage to make it to the end of a horror movie without hiding under the covers might feel a sense of mastery and accomplishment over the threat they’ve simulated — and seek out similar experiences in the future.

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How Scary Is Too Scary?

Still, some recent research suggests that the amount of fear that horror fans seek out plays a role in how enjoyable that experience is.

In a paper published in Psychological Science in 2020, Andersen and his colleagues —including horror scholar Mathias Clasen, the other co-director of the Recreational Fear Lab — conducted a field study at a haunted house. The researchers hooked up 110 participants with heart rate monitors and video recorded their reactions at peak “scare points,” and also asked the participants about their fear and enjoyment levels afterwards.

“That study showed there seemed to be this ‘sweet spot’ of fear, where enjoyment tends to be maximized,” says Andersen, describing that relationship as an inverted U-shape. “Too much fear results in a decrease in enjoyment, but also, too little fear results in a reduction in enjoyment.”

“That [sweet spot] probably has to do with the prospects of learning about that situation and gaining insights into that situation,” he adds.

Read More: Why Scary Music Sounds, Well, Scary

Are Horror Movies Good for You?

Indeed, tuning into a horror flick this Halloween can bring more than just simple thrills. In a 2023 study on different types of horror fans, Clasen and colleagues found that all three groups reported distinct benefits, from instant gratification to personal growth.

Beyond that, toying with recreational fear may leave you better equipped when real threats do emerge. In a study conducted during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clasen and his teammates found that horror fans were more psychologically resilient.

“That study suggested that horror fans were less stressed out about the whole situation, when many humans were freaking out about what was going to happen,” says Andersen. “And one possible reason is that they were simply more practiced in terms of thinking about these worst-case scenarios.”

Read More: The Science of a Good Scare

How To Enjoy Being Scared

Despite potential benefits like better coping skills, if you don’t enjoy horror, you shouldn’t force yourself to experience it. “It has to do with what an individual is ready to encounter,” says Andersen. “It’s probably not a good idea to just power through horror movies.”

If you are ready to take the plunge, though, there are still ways that you can modulate your horror-viewing to be more enjoyable: Inviting friends over for social support, turning down the volume, and flicking on a few lights, says Andersen, can all help to temper the experience.

“It’s kind of like eating chili,” he adds. “You build a tolerance to it.”

Read More: What is True Crime? A Not So Strange Addiction

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