Bizarre Science: Why do we watch horror films?

As Halloween approaches and the nights get darker, lots of people will be settling down to watch a horror film. What is it about these movies that make horror-lovers obsessed with them and keeps them coming back for more jumpscares and gore? What makes someone sign up for a dose of “media-induced masochism”? Science may have the answer.  

About 10 per cent of the population enjoys watching horror films regularly. Psychologists think it may be down to the release of emotions after witnessing a frightening situation from the safety of the cinema. In the brain, registering the threat from the silver screen can result in a fight or flight response from the hypothalamus, heightening levels of adrenaline in the body. When the viewers finally calm down they experience intense relief as the brain is flooded with “feel-good” chemicals like endorphins and dopamine.  Horror fans can chase this buzz by watching scarier and scarier films, all while knowing they’re safe at home or in the cinema.  

Don’t be put off if horror films aren’t your thing, there may also be some benefits to disliking them as scientists have shown a strong link between highly empathetic people and those who hate horror. Maybe being crouched behind the sofa and watching through your fingers might not be such a bad thing after all …

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George Barsted

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June 2022
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