Why do we read scary books and sit in dark rooms watching horror movies? Are we just morons? (The current popularity of certain political candidates often does make me wonder.) Let’s assume in general we’re a smart species. If that’s the case, what draws us to haunted houses and stories about axe murders? Why are writers like Stephen King and R. L. Stein so popular?
I think to understand that, we need to take a lesson from psychology. As a writer, that topic intrigues me…
Psychology in writing
There is an element of psychology in all writing. Non-fiction writers must understand their subjects. Fiction writers must create entire personalities for characters complete with plausible reactions and motivations. To do that takes some degree of thought about the psychology of people, whether conscious or subconscious.
As a writer, I am often interested in what motivates people. The more I understand real people, the better I can create characters. It drives my husband a little crazy because I am always trying to categorize personality traits and postulating why people might have acted in a certain way. I start sentences with statements like “He is the kind of person who…”
My husband, a very logical thinker, views this as generalizing or making assumptions, neither of which he is fond of. But it’s really the opposite. I am trying to analyze and understand. I want to dive into the minds of people, swim around and then shape that into thoughts and words and ideas.
The psychology of scare
I’ve spent the last week on this blog writing about Halloween, scary books and movies, monsters and haunted houses. This has all made the character developer/person analyzer in me wonder-why do we like to be scared? I am no expert on why we chase the sensation of racing heart beats and sweaty palms. And why do some people like terror more than others? Lucky for me the handy dandy Internet came to my rescue.
It’s all about chemicals and context.
Essentially our bodies are programmed to respond to fear (yep that whole fight-or-flight thing we all learned about in school). That response releases chemicals. But not all chemicals trigger just one emotion. The fear response is closely related to other high-emotion responses like excitement and surprise. As long as you’re in a situation where you know you won’t actually be harmed, your mind processes this response as positive. Bottom line: Fear is fun, if it happens in a safe place.
There is a great article on this in the Atlantic where the magazine interviewed a psychologist consulting for a haunted house. The article explains that “To really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we’re in a safe environment. It’s all about triggering… the flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, but in a completely safe space.”
You got that? Being chased by a real murderer, not fine. Being chased by a fake axe murdered in a mask, totally fine. It’s all context, people!
So, why don’t all people like to be scared out of their minds? Short answer: Dopamine.
Let’s go back to the Atlantic to help here: “There is strong evidence that this isn’t just about personal choice, but our brain chemistry. New research from David Zald shows that people differ in their chemical response to thrilling situations. One of the main hormones released during scary and thrilling activities is dopamine, and it turns out some individuals may get more of a kick from this dopamine response than others do.”
Fear also sticks in our brains.
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing on 9/11 (provided you were born yet)? You probably do. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing the next day? You probably don’t. That’s because high emotion situations are more likely to encode (stick) in our brains.
According to an article in Psychology Today, pseudo scary events like Halloween combine “friends, thrills, chills and spooky things thrusts our body…into a perfect state for encoding layered and strong memories. We store intense emotional experiences with more detail and importance than non-emotional experiences.”
So, if you can still remember the haunted house that terrified you when you were 10-years-old but can’t remember what you had for breakfast, now you know why.
Being scared makes us feel powerful.
Ever want to feel like Wonder Woman or Superman (or any other of your favorite superheroes. I’d pick Buffy personally)? Fear actually can help with that.
An article in Today explains, “The hormonal reaction we get when we are exposed to a threat or crisis can motivate this love of being scared. The moment we feel threatened, we feel increasingly more strong and powerful physically, and more intuitive emotionally.”
So what have we learned here?
I think we can safely say we don’t like to be scared because we’re morons. It’s really all about chemistry and context. Our hormonal reactions to creepy stories and fabricated fear allow us to experience strong emotions in a safe environment. We can get the same “rush” of adrenaline from a movie or a book that we’d get from jumping out of a plane and I’d say the former is a much safer option. So, in 4 days, go outside and let yourself be scared in the dark for a bit. Apparently, it’s kind of good for you.