Why Are We Drawn to Movies that Scare Us?

It’s Friday evening and you’re prepping for a lazy date night at home. You’ve pulled on your cutest (but comfiest) sweats, have the snack tray loaded and have Netflix ready on your TV. Now, you just have to decide what you’ll watch…and while you kind of hate how they make you jump, you’re pretty sure another scary movie will end up filling your TV screen.

Sometimes you can’t help but ask yourself: Why do I always put myself through this? Why do I enjoy being scared out of my mind and being unable to sleep without a light on for a week straight? It turns out, your horror movie addiction isn’t crazy…or, at the very least, you’re getting some real bang for your cinematic buck.

Not convinced? Here are five of ENTITY’s top reasons why you’re addicted to horror movies…and having the best sex ever is only just the start.

1 You’re addicted to the adrenaline rush.

The feeling of watching a scary movie is often compared to being on a roller coaster: as you watch the killer approach the shower curtain, with the girl blissfully unaware, you can’t help but feel your heart heart quicken. The bonus to those shaky, jumpy moments? They trigger the same chemical reactions in the brain as seen during arousal.

In fact, various studies have shown that adrenaline can boost attraction. In 1973, psychologists had men approach an attractive woman by either crossing a high, unstable bridge or walking across a low, stable bridge. All of the men then filled out a questionnaire and received the woman’s phone number. The results? The men who crossed the “scary” bridge included more sexual imagery and content in the survey and were more likely to call the woman. Similarly, in 2011, psychologists asked college students to fill out a survey on their attraction to members of the opposite sex after engaging in 15 minutes of physical activity. The more adrenaline-boosting the activity, the more attracted the students felt.

Of course, watching a murder movie or riding a roller coaster may not immediately want to jump your partner’s bones. But, “being scared is physiologically arousing, and in the right company, it may eventually carry over to sexual arousal,” according to Dr. Joanne Cantor from the University of Wisconsin.

So the next time you Netflix and chill, you may want to give yourself the chills with a scary movie instead of the usual romantic comedy flick.

2 You can tell yourself, “It’s only a movie.”

Have you ever watched a horror movie, whether The Shining or Psycho, and comforted yourself by repeating the phrase, “It’s only a movie”? If you have – and let’s be honest, we all have – then you’re experiencing the cathartic properties of movies  first-hand.

As infamous horror writer Stephen King once wrote: “For us, horror movies are a safety valve…We take refuge in make-believe terrors so the real ones don’t overwhelm us, freezing us in place and making it impossible for us to function in our day-to-day-lives. We go into the darkness of a movie theatre hoping to dream badly, because the world of our normal lives looks ever so much better when the bad dream ends.”

Psychology agrees with Stephen King’s explanation. Dr. Dolf Zillman’s Excitation Transfer theory basically says that the worse we feel during scary movies, the more intensify we experience positive feelings afterward. 

As crazy as it sounds, if chick flicks aren’t helping your bad day, maybe screaming during the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is exactly what you need.

3 You can escape from reality for the price of a movie.

I’m sure we’ve all had those days when we walk into the door, plop on the couch and want nothing more to fly off to some exotic island instead of going back to work the next day. For those who don’t have the budgets for a private vacation, though, horror movies are the next best thing.

After all, most horror movies don’t involve your everyday routine. “Halloween and scary movies, scaring people and being scared, is not boring,” explains New York City psychologist Linda Hamilton, “We are attracted to doing things that are unusual.” Sometimes, that means trying out a new yoga class or a different restaurant for dinner. Other times, that’s watching how people survive the zombie apocalypse or a serial killer.

The key to horror movies’ success is this “unrealism.” Studies have shown that when participants are asked to watch a documentary featuring “real-life horrors,” 90% of them turn off the video before it ends. On the other hand, they are willing to pay for hours of fictional horror. If you’ve ever wondered why you prefer apocalyptic or alien horror movies over serial killer flicks, this may be the answer you’ve been searching for.

4 You know how it should (and probably will) end.

If you’re a horror flick fanatic, you’ve probably realized that every movie follows a similar structure. Think of one of the earliest horror stories there is: Frankenstein. It follows a plot of monster is created, monster is discovered, and monster is destroyed and a new “normalcy” is established. If you think about current horror movies, you can probably apply the same (or at least a similar) structure.

What does that mean for you? According to The Daily Beast: “Horror films thus appeal to people who like predictability and neat ends, hold the ethical relativism: in these movies, there is no question about who the bad guy is.” If you’re the kind of person who’s always guessing what is going to happen next, horror movies’ reliable plot lines probably keep you coming back to the theater. 

After all, jumping in shock at the monster’s sudden attack only lasts for a few seconds. But the satisfaction of receiving the happy ending (or, at the very least, the predictable ending) you expected? That lasts for a long time after the movie ends.

5 You like seeing yourself in the hero…or the monster.

You may watch horror movies for the same reason that you gawk at an nasty car crash: you’re curious about the ugly parts of life. This curiosity even has a name – morbid fascination – and horror movies check all of its boxes.

Just think about your typical horror movie. It probably has a villain, who may even have you wondering what factors are needed to turn a good person into an evil one. It probably also has a hero, who could speak to your own dreams of helping others. And monsters consistently change through history to reflect what society is fearing at the moment. For instance, after 9/11, you may have noticed a rise in horror movies featuring torture scenes. And it doesn’t take a psychologist to see that viewers might be worrying about their own mortality as they watch the zombie apocalypse unfold on a movie screen.

“The horror genre addresses our archetypal fears,” explains Dr. Paul Patterson, a professor at Saint Joseph’s University. “You can see throughout history how each generation has defined ‘horror,’ and it turns largely on the idea of something outside of our understanding threatening us.”

What exactly is threatening you depends on the time, context and your own, innermost fears.

For those who don’t enjoy horror movies, the films may seem uselessly frightening or even a little sick. If you do find yourself putting on horror flicks in the middle of the night, though, you have more than a few justifiable reasons why. After all, movies are more than just forms of entertainment; they’re entertainment that can also force us to think.

And if horror movies make us think about our own code of ethics, personal struggles, or maybe even how much we love Netflix and chilling on Friday nights…well, what’s wrong with that?

Edited by Casey Cromwell