It’s a dark and stormy night. You’re all alone in a big abandoned house. When suddenly the power goes out, and you hear a loud bang. You turn around to see a chainsaw-wielding maniac.
Are you scared yet?
Don’t worry that was just a scene from your typical horror film. So, you can wipe off the sweaty palms, and take some deep breaths to lower your heart rate.
However, despite this feeling we get from being scared, we continue to flock to haunted houses, watch the latest horror films and read Stephen King.
For some reason when these typical story lines appear in multi-million-dollar horror films you keep watching the screen. Even if it is just one eye peeking out from behind the covers.
“Fear is a response to potentially threatening situations, an adaptive process relevant to survival. This is why it is powerful and makes us react with a readiness to take protective action,” says John Bassili, a University of Toronto professor with a PhD in psychology.
For some people, the thrill of a scary movie or embarking up the long hill of a roller coaster only to know you will soon be rushing down that very same hill. Bassili explains this thrill as becoming an adrenaline rush, where you are scared while it is happening but afterwards you feel a natural high.
“I think sometimes we are trying to see ‘what could happen?’. We become curious about the unknown, and want to see how far we would be able to push ourselves if we were in similar situations,” says Ryan Hong, a self-professed horror junkie.
So what draws these fear seekers?
Bassili explains our attraction to fear is based on the stimulation we get from experiencing it.
“When arousal is too low we are bored but when it is too high we get agitated. In the middle range we are alert and excited. People differ in how much stimulation they need to be in their optimal range of arousal. Thrill seekers, for example, obviously like a high level of stimulation,” says Bassili.
Marketing people’s fear has become a billion-dollar industry. The Saw movies franchise alone has made over $500 million dollars with five more still expected to be released in the future. Authors like Dean Koontz and Stephen King have popularized the horror novels genre. While video games have also got in on the action, with such games as Silent Hill, which allows you to simulate walking through some of your worst nightmares.
Another popular event in recent years has been the Canada’s Wonderland Halloween Haunt. This is similar to attending a big haunted house, with scary mazes and live shows.
“Although no one genuinely wants to be on the receiving end of an act of pure evil, an accident, or even bad manners, people like to invite the imagination to guess possible outcomes,” says Hong.
Horror junkies have also gathered to form the World Horror Society and each year they travel and hold conventions in all different parts of the world. They bring together actors, singers, authors and fans. The last convention was held in Toronto with hundreds of people in attendance.
There are many different mediums for people to experience voluntary fear. Some people choose to take it to the extreme by doing things such as bungee jumping and sky diving. There is a real spectrum of how people react to and choose to experience thrill.
“Fear in my life usually is made up of television and film, video games, and haunted houses. But for me I would say a more subtle form of fear, would be the fear of being caught, that you find present in paintball games and causing mischief,” says Hong.
But not everyone is as excited and obsessed with fear as others.
“My friends always joke with me because I hate scary movies, I won’t go on roller coasters, and I don’t have any interest in going in a haunted house. I don’t really know what it is that holds me back,” says Julian Jain.
Basilli explains this conflict between people who enjoy fear and those who don’t as relating back to our animal instincts.
“All kinds of thoughts can cross one’s mind in reaction to fear, but the dominant response is either to confront the threat or to escape. This ‘fight or flight’ response is common to many animal species,” says Bassili.
Children are a good example, of the flight response with many of them reacting very strongly and negatively towards feelings of fear. Many experiencing nightmares related to their fearful experience. However, each year on Halloween hundreds of kids dress up as vampires and other scary creatures.
“I remember when I was little, the first scary movie I saw was Freddy. That same night after we watched it my older brother came into my room wearing a Freddy mask, and scared me half to death. I had nightmares for five years after that,” laughs Jain.
So despite your worst nightmares and deepest darkest secrets, fear is almost something you can’t escape. For now, pop your popcorn put in your scary movie grab a blanket for protection and remember the remote control could always make a good weapon.