You're at a movie theatre, watching a revival of The Shining, one of the best horror movies of all time. The creepy twins, the lady in the tub, the rivers of blood, the music, REDRUM—the entire thing gives you the shivers. The hair on your skin stands up. Your eyes widen, your heart beats faster. You start clutching the person next to you, while sinking back into your seat. You're petrified. And that's the point.
Stephen King, who wrote the book upon which the film was based, once described “terror as the finest emotion." More often than not, he nails it—so well, in fact, that King's terror empire is worth about $400 million. He's not the only one capitalizing on our hankering for horror. The big business of fear "drives the $500 million haunted-attraction industry and $400 million at the box office for horror films each year," according to a 2013 AdAge report. In recent years, our cultural obsession with zombies, A.K.A. the walking dead, has reached such extremes that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has used them in public health campaigns. It's also spurred the revival of moribund franchises like Goosebumps and The Living Dead.
But why? The entire time you're watching a scary movie, playing a 'survival horror' video game, or walking through a haunted house or zombified maze, your body is telling you to make a run for it. Well, it seems that at least some of us might have some built-in masochistic inkling for gore.
“High sensation-seekers enjoy morbid curiosity in general and horror movies in particular,” Marvin Zuckerman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Delaware, told LiveScience.
For thrill-seeker types, horror movies may fill a deep desire to be aroused. It gives them a rush of adrenaline, and sometimes even feelings of joy. In 2007, the Journal of Consumer Research published a study in which researchers asked people to watch snippets of horror flicks while they rated how they felt. The study found that people who loved horror films reported feelings of fear—as you might expect—but also feelings of happiness.
"It's not that they truly enjoy being scared," Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication at Purdue University, told WebMD. "But they get great satisfaction being able to say that they conquered and mastered something that was threatening. They enjoy the feeling that they 'made it through.'"
It's not unlike the sensations daredevils experience with skydiving, bungee jumping, zip lining or other extreme sports. Researchers who study thrill-seekers say that they get a high from putting themselves in potentially dangerous situations. You get a similar feeling from watching the Walking Dead, but in a much safer environment, with no risk of a bungee cord snapping or a sky-diving parachute not opening.
Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, studies people who love riding roller coasters. He says that the thrill people get from putting their bodies through a coaster's drops and loops can surpass even the high they get from sex. Roller coasters and horror movies allow us to probe our own boundaries, and they do that while minimizing the risk involved. That is, they fulfill our need to feel alive and stay alive.
But out in the real world, fear isn't a party trick. Stephen King was right in calling it a fine emotion. Without it, we wouldn't know how to evade danger. When we encounter something we think can hurt us—an armed gunman, a snake, or a fire—our fight-or-flight response kicks in. And it's not just humans. Other animals use fear as a defense mechanism. That's how important it is for survival, according to scientists.
"All animals have to be able to detect danger and respond to danger in order to stay alive," famed fear researcher Joseph LeDoux told the Big Think. We all evolved to be fearful of situations that might kill us, and prevent our genes from spreading to future generations.
But like most emotions, fear is good only in moderation. Chronic fears can prevent us from living full lives. Some people are so scared of failure, they have a hard time pursuing their goals. Others are so anxious about being disconnected from the internet, social media, and friends that they develop what look like technology addictions. This is so pervasive in today's hyper-connected world that we even have a term for it—FOMO, short for fear of missing out. Recent research suggests that FOMO may have negative psychological effects, like depression, anxiety and paranoia. One group even developed a FOMO test, appropriately dubbed Rate My FOMO, so people could see how bad they have it. (My FOMO level is medium.)
There is seemingly a fear for everything: dinner parties, numbers, young people, knees, poetry, flowers, holes, wet dreams, worms, the list goes on. These are not fun fears that thrill. They can be debilitating. And there's tons of research happening around how we can eliminate them. A search for fear-related clinical trials on the website ClinicalTrials.gov turns up more than 800 studies, ranging from fear of falling to nightmares. On the biomedical publication database, PubMed, there are almost 58,000 papers related to fear.
Much of it is focused on post-traumatic stress disorder, a chronic mental health condition triggered by living through or witnessing terrifying events. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, extreme anxiety, hopelessness and memory loss. It's so debilitating that the Department of Defense and the Veterans' Administration spent $3.3 billion on PTSD care in 2012.
In recent years, new imaging and genetic techniques have given scientists more nuanced insights into the biological underpinnings of fear and anxiety disorders. For example, although we tend to lump anxiety and fear together, scientifically there is a distinction. Fear deals with facts and sensory input, like watching a scary movie or seeing a spider. Anxiety, on the other hand, is more about expectations. You can start feeling anxious at the very thought of threatening situations. While it's true that the brain uses many of the same areas to process anxiety and fear, scientists think that the brain circuitry, or pathways, that are involved in detecting, evaluating or processing anxiety-causing information may be more complex than those for fear. That may be because one deals in "reality"—what we see and feel—and the other in perception.
They're also starting to get a clearer picture of how the brain translates the outside world into feelings and behavior. In a mouse study published in the journal Science in June, scientists discovered the specific connections that link up the eye and the amygdala, the almond-shaped part of the brain that processes emotions, fear included. These connections help translate the sight of an approaching threat to an animal's fight-or flight response. How these connections manifest themselves as fear-directed behaviors, like freezing in place, isn't yet known. But research has shown that the amygdala helps the brain decipher and remember what kinds of stimuli are neutral, beneficial or potentially harmful. That way, when we re-encounter them, we know what to do. That's helpful because it prevents us from being fearful of every little thing we encounter.
Scientists think that studying fear will be useful not just for figuring out what gives us the frights, but in understanding more generally how the brain turns what we see and hear into feelings that affect our behavior. That will likely have consequences for how social engineers craft amusement park rides, living spaces and advertising. And maybe that will be the ultimate nightmare. When the admen and the feds perfect the art of frightening us into doing what they want.
This story is part of Real Future’s Fear Week.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.