It’s dark and warm and chaotic. The people in my group are screaming and scrambling to get away from the maniac who’s lumbering toward us with a roaring, smoke-belching chainsaw. I’ve been expecting him, but still, my heart skips a few beats when he emerges in a cloud of smoke and deafening noise. The science journalist next to me looks like he wants to run off and to hell with his assignment. We’re in Dystopia Haunted House, a commercial horror venue open to the horror-hungry public. I’m scientific advisor to the haunt, and the journalist is doing a feature on the psychology of horror. We’re accompanied by regular guests who, incredibly, are paying good money to be terrified by chainsaw-wielding Mr. Piggy and his fellow scare actors. Why do they do it? How does it work, and what’s the appeal of horror?
The horror genre is a paradoxical one. Horror entertainment aims to evoke fear, anxiety, disgust, and dread in its audience. Those emotions don’t feel good, yet horror is extremely popular. And now that Halloween—the festival of horror—is rolling around again, people seek out horror films, dress up in spooky costumes, decorate their yards with the paraphernalia of dread and death, get together to do the zombie dance, and flock to the hair-raising haunts that have proliferated across the United States over the last several decades. The appetite for horror springs from human nature, and our desire to stare into the abyss finds satisfaction in pretty much all cultural domains—from religion over literature, films, and video games to the visual arts, art photography, and heavy metal music.
Horror is crucially dependent on our biological constitution. We evolved to be fearful, to be keenly attuned to—and curious about—dangers around us. Like any other species on the planet, ours evolved in an adaptive relationship with its environments. For most of human evolutionary history, those environments teemed with danger. Our ancestors faced the perils of predators, the danger of infectious germs and bugs, the hazards of weather and landscape, the threat of attack from hostile members of their own species. In such a dangerous world, the fearsome were better equipped to survive and reproduce than those who were born fearless. Eventually, fearfulness became a universal trait. All normally-developing humans are born with a fear system that, like a smoke detector, is designed to be hypersensitive. We jump at shadows and presume the scratching of a branch on the bedroom window to be a blood-thirsty predator clawing for a way in. We’re very easy to spook, and horror exploits that fact of human psychology.
Horror works by showing us characters responding to nasty things, such as restless and decomposing corpses aching for human flesh, say, or giant predatory spiders. Those nasty things tend to reflect ancestral dangers. People easily acquire phobia of spiders because spiders over evolutionary time posed a very real danger to our ancestors, leaving an eight-legged imprint on our nervous system. We evolved to find rotting flesh disgusting—even more so when that rotten flesh moves around and wants to eat you. In interactive media, such as horror video games, we become protagonists in a fictional world that teems with danger. In haunted attractions, likewise, we’re in the middle of horror stories that unfold around us in real-time. Horror uses stimuli—often exaggerated for effect—that reliably target our evolved fear system, and we love it.
Horror entertainment serves important psychological and social functions. It allows us to get risk-free and low-cost experience with threat scenarios. When we visit a haunted house and come face-to-face with chainsaw-wielding maniacs and decomposing zombies, we’re expanding our experiential horizon to encompass genuine negative emotion. We learn what it feels like to be really, truly afraid. We fine-tune coping mechanisms that help us get through the horrors thrown up by the real world. When we watch a horror film with friends, we demonstrate our mastery to ourselves and our buddies, perhaps strengthening our bonds as we brave the horrifying experience together. When we play hide-and-seek with our children—essentially enacting an ancient pattern of predator-prey interaction—we’re letting them play with fear and anxiety, helping them to handle those emotions in the process.
Sometimes, of course, horror becomes too much. Upwards of 5% of visitors to Dystopia Haunted House are overwhelmed by the horrors and abort the tour voluntarily. Media psychologists have demonstrated traumatic effects of exposure to horror. In the right dosage, though, horror is an important means by which we become equipped to handle a world that is sometimes dangerous and often unpredictable. That’s all the more reason to embrace the fun of fear this Halloween.
Featured image: Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill (1959). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.