Some people crave a good fright, while others avoid scary flicks. Discover why you might fall in either category.
Some people can’t get enough of scary movies, catching horror flicks on opening night and rewatching their favorites at home.
Others can barely sit through the scarier scenes of a Hallmark mystery, feeling unsettled for days.
Why do some people savor scary movies, while others can’t stand them? Experts share some fascinating theories.
Whether it’s horror movies, haunted houses, or creepy stories, some people love to be scared. They regularly seek out darker genres and delight in their fear-inducing elements. They yearn to feel terrified and scream their hearts out.
Why do people like scary movies and getting a good fright overall? Experts share four possible explanations:
1. The excitation transfer process
According to Glenn Sparks, PhD, a professor and associate head of the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, one reason for the appeal is how you feel after the movie. This is called the excitation transfer process.
Sparks explains how it works: When people watch frightening films, their heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing increase. After the film is over, this physical arousal lingers. This means that any positive emotions you experience, such as having fun with friends, become intensified.
In a nutshell: Instead of focusing on the fright you felt during the film, you remember having a fantastic time. And you’ll want to come back for more.
2. Different wiring
Some people are simply wired to enjoy higher levels of physiological arousal, Sparks says.
He notes that some people enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes from not only watching horror flicks but also from riding roller coasters and other fear-inducing activities.
Some people turn to scary movies because they’re novel. We’re all wired to pay attention to anomalies in our environment, Sparks says. Since danger disrupts routine, curiosity about change is important for survival.
Sparks equates the pull of frightening films with stopping at the scene of a bad accident: “You don’t see that every day.”
Something else you don’t often see is the impressive visual effects. Some people get enamored with movie special effects and like to figure them out, says Joanne Cantor, PhD, professor emerita and outreach director at the Center for Communication Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
4. Gender socialization
Your biological sex may also play a role. A 2020 survey suggests that men tend to enjoy scary movies and watch them more often than women.
Why? Sparks speculates that it’s because men are socialized to be brave and enjoy threatening things. Men might also derive social gratification from not letting a scary film bother them. It’s the idea of mastering something threatening, he says.
Cantor says that “Men often like [scary films] as date movies because women are more likely to seek physical closeness when they’re scared, and men can show off their strength and bravery.” This is aptly called “the cuddle effect.”
Older research suggests that males liked a horror movie more when they saw it with a female who was scared, and females liked the movie more when they saw it with a male who wasn’t scared.
While many people love scary movies, others hate them and have a hard time understanding their appeal. There are reasons why you might avoid frightening flicks.
The excitation transfer process can also explain why many of us don’t like scary movies.
Had a negative experience while watching a horror flick?
Maybe you were on a date that wasn’t going well, got into a car accident on your way home, or received some bad news while at the theater.
Because your lingering arousal heightens any emotions you experience, the negative feelings might sway you to skip a scary flick in the future.
If we experience high levels of fright, seeing a scary movie just isn’t worth it.
“Negative emotions are stored in the amygdala, [which] in contrast to positive emotions are particularly resistant to being extinguished,” Sparks says.
Horror movies can even lead us to change our behavior if something in our current environment reminds us of a scene. After seeing “Jaws,” a movie about a great white shark terrorizing swimmers, some people stopped swimming in the ocean and felt eerie about lakes and pools, Cantor says.
Others might avoid films that come too close to home. Students have told Sparks that they avoid films featuring a terrorized babysitter because they babysit.
Wiring also might explain why some people hate scary movies. Some of us have a harder time screening out unwanted stimuli in our environment, Sparks says.
For instance, we might be hypersensitive to the temperature in a room or the tag on our shirt, which is especially common for highly sensitive people. These individuals may be more likely to have intense physiological reactions to horror films, according to a 2009 study.
Both experts suggest being especially careful about what your kids watch.
Cantor’s 2006 research found that college students who watched scary movies or shows before 14 years old had trouble sleeping and felt anxious about typically safe activities or stopped engaging in them altogether.
“Until the age of 5 to 7, seeing is believing,” even if it’s make-believe, says Cantor, who wrote the book “Teddy’s TV Troubles”specifically for calming down kids after they’ve been scared by the media.
What about tweens and teens?
According to Cantor, older kids get especially scared by realistic threats, such as kidnappings and child molestation. Teens, like adults, are more scared of abstract threats, such as disease and the supernatural.
“Parents need to pay attention to how their children react to movies before deciding if a particular show is right for them,” Cantor says. “Intense fright reactions are much easier to prevent than to undo.”
Plenty of people love getting a good scare, while many don’t like horror movies. Why? The possible reasons are wide-ranging, from how we’re wired to our desire to seek novel, routine-busting things.
But whether you love or hate scary flicks, the key is to seek what suits you.
So, if horror films make you happy, don’t stop watching them. But if fear-inducing films make you feel uncomfortable, fill your watchlist with movies that actually bring you joy.
You’re in charge of the media you consume.