This year alone, Americans will spend around $7 billion on Halloween costumes, haunted houses fright fests and generally scaring the heck out of themselves and others.
“We don’t have many other holidays that are really directly connected to a strong emotion that is almost universal – fear and the dark side,” says Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Temple University who specializes in thrill-seeking and extreme behavior.
So why do we enjoy Halloween thrills so much?
One 2007 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research dispelled earlier assumptions that humans respond to pleasure and avoid pain. They explored why people love horror movies and discovered that people actually like to be scared. Previously it had been assumed that people watch horror moves because (a) they are not actually afraid, but excited by the movie or (b) that they are willing to endure the terror in order to enjoy a euphoric sense of relief at the end.
The authors argue that horror movie viewers are happy to be unhappy. This novel approach to emotion reveals that people experience both negative and positive emotions simultaneously. People may actually enjoy being scared, not just relief when the threat is removed. The authors concluded: “Pleasant moments of a particular event may also be the most fearful.” And compared horror movies to the thrill and fear of extreme sports.
But not everyone likes being scared. How a person responds to fear is wired in their personality. Those who thrive on fear are so-called T-types. They are thrill-seekers, according to Farley, who coined the term in the 1980s.
“They like uncertainty, suspense, unpredictability, the unknown,” he said. “Uncertainty is the prime source of fear. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Movie makers and amusement park ride creators know how to induce fear. There is intensity of stimulation. It can be the sound of screams or the visual – something comes out of nowhere into your face, like a house of horror.
Music is also important, like the pulsating theme of the movie, “Jaws,” as the white shark leaps out of the water.
Sometimes the sensation is tactile, when walking through an unstable platform in a fun house.
Roller coasters are the ultimate thrill ride. “Where else are you expected to throw your hands in the air and scream at the top of your lungs?” Farley asked. “The intensity factor is important. Thrill rides really jerk a person around. They rotate the body and change the G force and people are screaming. You don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
Novelty and contradiction is also a factor in fear – a clown who kills or a child who is a monster.
Movies and books that exploit the most basic of human fears come dangerously close to reality. And experiencing that horror as a child can be a dress rehearsal for facing fear in the adult world. Children have an uncanny attraction to frightening stories and psychologists say they project their fears and come to terms with them through stories.
Some of the most popular children’s fiction involves ghost, vampires and skeletons. Harry Potter enthralls readers with witches and warlocks.
But the concept of scary children’s stories is not new. The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, first published in 1812, were culled from folk stories that had been recited over generations. Many of the original stories were gruesome. Some involved rape, incest, child murder bullying and cannibalism.
Although they have since been sanitized, in the original “Snow White,” the queen asks for the young maiden’s liver and lungs, which she intends to serve up for dinner. Likewise, in the original “Sleeping Beauty” our heroine is bitten and then raped by the king (not kissed by a prince), and she gives birth to his two children in her sleep.
“Fairytales are a path to dealing with fear, to figure out how it works, what it is and recognizing it,” says Farley. “Pulling your head out of the sand when you are surrounded by horror or fearsome things has a high survival value.”