Research published in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences presents evidence that the enjoyment of horror has evolved as a means of preparing for real-world encounters with danger. The study found that high enjoyment of horror involves a preference for intensely-frightening content and a simultaneous expectation of experiencing positive emotions.
Horror experiences are widely popular, from haunted attractions to horror films and video games. Researchers call this the “paradox of horror entertainment”, questioning why people purposefully seek out and enjoy experiences that provoke negative emotions such as fear and shock. Study authors Mathias Clasen and his team set out to explore who consumes such content and why — from an evolutionary approach.
“My professional interest in scary entertainment stems from personal fascination,” said Clasen, an associate professor at Aarhus University and director of the Recreational Fear Lab. “I’ve long been interested in the paradoxical appeal of horror, and this particular study was an attempt to get a better understanding of the personality profile of the horror fan. Is it a particular kind of person who is drawn to scary stories?”
A sample of 1,187 adults was recruited for an online survey. The respondents answered a multitude of questions concerning their consumption of horror media, including their content preferences, how easily scared they are by such content, and how often they consume it. They also completed measures of sensation-seeking and the Big Five personality traits.
The participants had been invited to complete the survey whether they enjoyed horror media or not, and the analysis revealed that the consumption of horror media was widespread. Around 81% of respondents said they consumed horror media several times a year or more. The enjoyment of horror media was also high with 55% indicating that they enjoy the genre.
Moreover, the researchers found that people seemed to anticipate and embrace the fear aspect of horror experiences. Those who reported higher paranormal beliefs also reported greater fear of supernatural content and greater enjoyment of it — suggesting that people pursue and enjoy horror media that is more plausible to them and thus more fear-provoking. In line with previous research, sensation-seeking strongly predicted how much people enjoyed horror, how often they consumed it, and their preference for high-intensity horror.
As Clasen and colleagues observe, it appeared that the negative emotion of fear was being compensated for by the positive emotions also elicited by the horror experience. The results showed those who enjoyed horror more, expected to experience more joy, trust, anticipation, and surprise from the content. They also scored higher in the Big Five trait of Intellect/Imagination, which tends to describe people who are intelligent and creative. This suggests that those who seek horror experiences are looking for “imaginative stimulation”.
The authors say their findings point to horror as a type of “benign masochism” through which people seek and get pleasure from experiencing frightening scenarios in a safe, imaginative way. “Individuals who desire intellectual stimulation, in particular, find horror use gratifying,” the researchers say. “Such mediated experience with threat scenarios opens up a vast simulatory space for emotional and cognitive play, for behavior regulation and norm exploration, and for building and displaying mastery.”
“One of the most interesting findings here is that frightening entertainment is not a niche phenomenon. We find that the majority of people say that they tend to enjoy horror movies, scary books, and so on,” Clasen told PsyPost. “Moreover, people have different reasons for seeking out such entertainment. Some are in it for arousal, some for social bonding, and so on. Our results also support a hypothesis that frightening entertainment provides threat simulations for people. We seem to be hardwired to find pleasure in playing with fear. Horror allows us to do that, and there is nothing pathological or weird about finding pleasure in slasher movies, Stephen King novels, and survival horror video games.”
Clasen and his team say these ideas fall in line with the evolutionary threat-simulation hypothesis, which suggests the enjoyment of horror is an adaptive trait that serves to prepare people for real-life encounters with threat. Exploring with horror media offers a way for people to steadily open themselves up to these experiences, potentially increasing their readiness for dealing with hostility in the real world.
However, “the psychology of scary entertainment is still largely a scientific mystery,” Clasen added. “This study provides one piece of the puzzle, but there are many outstanding questions. We know little about the constructive uses to which frightening entertainment can be put, such as bonding effects or effects on psychological resilience, for instance. We also know little about the cross-cultural aspects of the phenomenon, and about children’s engagement with frightening leisure activities. But we’re working on it!”
Read the study: “Horror, Personality, and Threat Simulation: A Survey on the Psychology of Scary Media”, authored by Mathias Clasen, Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, and John A. Johnson.