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The Allure of Horror Movies

Why are we drawn to horror movies?

Humans are fascinated by what scares us, be it skydiving, roller coasters, or true-crime documentaries — provided these threats are kept at a safe distance. Horror movies are no different, according to researchers at the University of Turku in Finland.

To study why we want to watch horror movies, the researchers first established a list of the 100 best and scariest horror movies of the past century and how they made people feel.

What they found is that 72 percent of people report watching at least one horror movie every six months. The movies incite feelings of fear and anxiety, with the number one feeling excitement.

Horror movies are also an excuse to socialize, with many people preferring to watch horror movies with others than on their own.

According to the study’s findings, horror movies that are psychological in nature and based on real events are the scariest. And people were far more scared by things that were unseen or implied rather than what they could actually see.

This distinction reflects two types of fear that people experience, according to Professor Lauri Nummenmaa, the study’s principal investigator: “The creeping foreboding dread that occurs when one feels that something isn’t quite right, and the instinctive response we have to the sudden appearance of a monster that make us jump out of our skin.”

To see how the brain copes with these fears, the researchers recruited people to watch a horror movie while they measured their neural activity via MRI.

During those times when anxiety is slowly increasing, regions of the brain involved in visual and auditory perception become more active, as the need to attend to cues of threats in the environment become more important, the researchers explained. After a sudden shock, brain activity is more evident in regions involved in emotion processing, threat evaluation, and decision making, enabling a rapid response.

However, these regions are in continuous talk-back with sensory regions throughout the movie, as if the sensory regions were preparing response networks as a scary event was becoming increasingly likely, the researchers discovered.

“Our brains are continuously anticipating and preparing us for action in response to threat, and horror movies exploit this expertly to enhance our excitement,” said researcher Matthew Hudson.

Source: University of Turku

Photo: Top ten scariest movies of the past century. Credit: Lauri Nummenmaa.

The Allure of Horror Movies

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2020). The Allure of Horror Movies. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 25 Jan 2020 (Originally: 25 Jan 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 25 Jan 2020
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