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Trick or treat? The psychology of fright and Halloween horrors

Not everyone is drawn to horror movies, but some seem to luxuriate in frightful experiences. Flood G./Flickr, CC BY

Trick or treat? The psychology of fright and Halloween horrors

Halloween is upon us. The spirits of the departed return to haunt the living and demons roam the land.

Predictably, scary movies flood television screens and packs of costumed, sugar-crazed children wander the streets.

Halloween is upon us. Troy B. Thompson/Flickr, CC BY

In many ways, trick or treating and watching horror movies are puzzling activities. What possesses people to help their children become ghouls, monsters and supernatural villains for one enchanted evening?

Why do we seek out experiences that we know will expose us to dread, disgust and terror?

Not everyone is drawn to these experiences, of course. As a rule, humans seek pleasure and avoid pain. But some seem to welcome emotional pain and even luxuriate in it.

The ‘Dark’ factor

Researchers have explored what influences enjoyment of horror movies in the hope of understanding the paradox that lies at its heart.

There’s a paradox that lies at the heart of enjoying being afraid. Daniel Lee/Flickr, CC BY

Liking horror movies is associated with an underlying dimension of entertainment preferences, dubbed “the Dark factor”.

People who find horror particularly appealing tend to enjoy heavy metal or punk music, cult films and erotica. They tend to be young and male. Those with Dark tastes value intensity, edginess and rebellion. Their personalities lean towards risk taking, antagonism, imagination and tough mindedness.

Some of these attributes reflect the personality trait of sensation seeking. High sensation seekers crave intense, novel, and risky experiences and are especially fond of frightening movies.

High sensation seekers crave intense, novel, and risky experiences and are especially fond of frightening movies. Paul Skeie/Flickr, CC BY

One study used fMRI to scan brains of people while they watched a horror film. Those who scored high on a sensation-seeking measure showed activation in brain regions associated with arousal and visual processing during threatening scenes. This activation was stronger than when they were exposed to neutral scenes.

Intriguingly, high sensation seekers’ neural response to scary scenes wasn’t higher than their low sensation seeker peers. Instead, high sensation seekers reacted less intensely to neutral scenes.

By implication, sensation seekers are bored and understimulated by the everyday. They show a magnified response to thrilling departures from normality. In essence, they enjoy horror because it is arousing.

The pleasure paradox

Empathy is also related to our differing fondness for frightening movies. More empathic people are likely to put themselves in the shoes of horrors movies’ sliced and mangled victims and to find the vicarious experience unpleasant.

One study showed people who scored higher on an empathy test made more effort to distract themselves during horror scenes and found them less appealing. They also showed a greater drop in skin temperature, indicating unpleasant arousal.

Some people might get pleasure from having a good cry. ePi.Longo/Flickr, CC BY

Arguably, having less empathy enables people to interpret frightening scenes as “just a movie” and detach their emotional response. Of course, there is a world of difference between coming face to face with a knife-wielding man in a hockey mask and seeing him on a screen. That difference may just be smaller for more empathic people.

Another factor that influences the enjoyment of fright is “meta-emotion”. This concept refers to how people feel and think about their emotions. Some derive enjoyment from negative emotional states, as when enjoying a “good cry”, for instance.

Indeed, a study found that people who like sad films enjoy a scene relative to how much sadness it elicits. The stronger the sadness, the higher the enjoyment.

Less empathic people can detach themselves from horror film emotions. Nathan Winter/Flickr, CC BY

The idea of meta-emotion resolves the hedonic paradox (the pursuit of negative experience for pleasure) by recognising that we can put a positive frame around a negative experience, and vice versa.

In one study, German researchers found people who generally avoided strong emotions felt negatively about their emotional response to a horror film. Those drawn to strong emotions enjoyed the movie experience more.

Enjoying horror films may be like enjoying chilli pepper or skydiving. The apparent benign masochism is driven by a desire for intense experiences, even when they are painful, unpleasant and contrary to our animal instincts.

Trick or treat!

Trick or treating has also interested psychologists. During this inversion of social norms children dress as powerful, wicked or monstrous beings and taboos around death and evil are relaxed. Researchers have used this ritualised suspension of normal expectations as a creative way to study rule-breaking.

Several studies have examined whether being costumed or masked affects childrens’ tendency to take more treats than allowed. Such effects might reveal the dangers of deindividuation (where individuals lose social restraints in groups).

Sure enough, costumed children who are anonymous, by wearing masks for instance, are more likely to take extra candies.

Halloween also seems to bring out excesses in adults. Costumed Halloween celebrators tend to have higher blood alcohol readings than people in plain clothes. There are also substantially increased levels of vandalism and property destruction.

Look out for ghosts. Evan Long/Flickr, CC BY

One form of crime that does not spike at Halloween though, is sexual abuse of children by strangers – despite some panic in the United States. But children on the day are at substantially increased risk of pedestrian motor vehicle accidents.

So look left, look right, and be careful on the roads. And don’t forget to look out for other dangers lurking under the bed, in the closet, beneath the stairs, behind the curtains, inside the vacant house on the corner ….