Fear as fun: why people willingly seek out scary experiences in pursuit of enjoyment

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  • Experts in psychology previously questioned why horror enthusiasts are entertained by fearful situations
  • This is because fear is intended to keep us away from danger and create alarm
  • A recent study has found that fear triggers physiological arousal, and explains why we enjoy certain frightening experiences

Fear is necessary for survival – it initiates responses to possible threats and in turn allows us to escape danger.

Although fear is necessary to sustain our existence as human beings, it is not necessarily a pleasurable emotion – unless of course you're a horror enthusiast.

During Halloween, for instance, these thrill seekers actively hunt for destinations filled with gore, such as decaying zombies and chainsaw-bearing maniacs. However, until now, it was not exactly clear as to why people would voluntarily want to be frightened.

Explaining recreational fear

The mixed emotional experience of fear and enjoyment simultaneously (such as when watching a horror movie) is known as 'recreational fear'. Although fear is an unpleasant emotion, sometimes people seek scary experiences for the purpose of recreation.

Researchers recently conducted a study to investigate how humans derive pleasure from fear by studying how a group of participants respond to a haunted house.

The haunted house

A total of 110 participants had the opportunity to experience a live-action horror house, while being fitted with heart monitors which recorded them in real-time.

This allowed researchers to observe the participants bodies’ responses when being exposed to stimuli. The commercial haunted house featured a variety of tactics to scare guests, including zombies and jump scares.

Researchers also observed participants in real-time through surveillance cameras to study participants' behavioural responses. Guests were also able to rate each encounter according to fright and enjoyment. 

Data from the heart monitors, surveillance cameras and self-reported experiences were then compared.

Playing with fear

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that scary situations and horrors can be entertaining when it enhances a distinct physical response (due to changes in heart rate) without overwhelming us. 

According to the researchers, there is a fine line between an unpleasant and fun experience when it comes to fear. 

Marc Malmdorf Andersen, lead author of the paper went on to say: “By investigating how humans derive pleasure from fear, we find that there seems to be a ‘sweet spot’ where enjoyment is maximised”.

When participants were not scared enough, they did not enjoy the experience, but when they were too scared they also did not enjoy it. The trends found when analysing data from the heart monitors are similar to what scientists found in human play.

Andersen stated that “several accounts of play stress the importance of just-right doses of uncertainty and surprise for explaining why play feels enjoyable”. The same is applicable for recreational fear, he said.

READ | This is what happens in your brain when you watch horror movies

READ | What happens in our brains when we're afraid?

READ | Fight or flight? Researchers uncover the neural basis of aggression

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