Like scary movies? They can be good for your mental health

Fear gets a bad rap. This is the so-called negative emotion that supposedly stands between us and our dreams. But fear is also the engine of a whole range of pleasurable activities and behaviors—which inspire what we might call entertaining fear.

Once you start looking for it, you’ll find entertaining scares everywhere. From a young age, people love to be afraid of caregivers (take a peek!). Young people are drawn to scary stories, performing stunts, riding roller coasters and playing horror video games. Indeed, most of us never lose our particular attraction to entertaining scares—even if we avoid slashers.

How so?

One hypothesis: Recreational fear is a play behavior that is widespread in the animal kingdom and ubiquitous in humans. When an organism plays, it learns skills and develops survival strategies. Play kitties practice their ability to hold their own in a hostile encounter, but with little risk and low cost compared to the real thing. Same with people. When we engage in recreational activities related to fear, specifically from peeping to watching horror movies, we challenge our limits and learn about our own physiological and psychological responses to stress. In other words, entertaining fear can actually be good for us.

To investigate all of this, my colleagues and I set up the Recreational Fear Lab, a research center at Aarhus University in Denmark. We conduct laboratory work, surveys, and empirical studies to understand this widespread but understudied psychological phenomenon.

In an ambitious research project led by my colleague Mark Malmdorf Andersen, we explored the experiences of guests at a very scary haunted house, the Dystopia Haunted House in Denmark. We installed surveillance cameras in the house’s scariest rooms, strapped participants with heart rate monitors, and handed out questionnaires to find out how guests reacted to, say, a pig with a chainsaw chasing them down a dark hallway.

We wanted to go deep into the connection between fear and delight. You might think that the relationship is linear—the more fear, the better. But when we plotted the actual relationship between fear and enjoyment, it looked like an inverted U. In other words, when people go to a haunted attraction, they don’t want too little fear (boring) and they don’t want too much fear (unpleasant). Instead, they want to hit the “fear sweet spot.”

This doesn’t just apply to high-intensity haunted attractions. When you throw a child in the air, you don’t want it to be too tame or too wild; when teenagers enjoy riding their bikes, they need just the right amount of belly-tickling excitement.

What are the benefits of tickling the sweet spot of fear? In several studies of the psychological and social effects of engaging in recreational fear, people have shown an ability to cope with stress and anxiety. One study — led by my colleague Coltan Scrivner — found that people who watched a lot of horror movies showed better psychological resilience during the first COVID-19 lockdown than people who stayed away from scary movies. It is assumed that the horror hounds trained their ability to regulate their own fear by playing with it.

We know from another Dystopia Haunted House study that people actively use a range of coping strategies to regulate their fear levels in pursuit of the sweet spot, and it makes sense to get better at using these strategies through practice.

You can think of recreational fear as mental gymnastics in the jungle where you prepare for the real thing, or as a kind of fear inoculation. A small dose of fear stimulates the body for the big dose that life sooner or later presents to it. So while fear itself can be unpleasant, recreational fear isn’t just fun—it can be good for us.

My colleagues and I even have preliminary results that suggest that some people with mental health problems, such as anxiety disorder and depression, get relief from entertaining horror. Maybe it’s about a momentary escape from anhedonia – an emotional leveling – and maybe it’s about playing with troubling emotions in a controllable context. For a scare to be fun, you need to feel not only that the levels are just that, but also that you have relative control over the experience.

With research findings like these in mind, perhaps we should think twice about protecting children and young people too zealously from playful forms of fear. They will discover the fear sooner or later and be better equipped if they have at least pretended to be there before.

Matthias Klassen is Associate Professor of Literature and Media and Director of the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University, Denmark. He is the author of “Why Horror Seduces” and “A Very Nervous Person’s Guide to Horror Movies.” This article was written about the Zócalo public square.

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