Psychology of Fear: Why we Love Halloween

Jack O' Lantern on leaves in the woodsIt’s that time of year again, when themes of death, evil and horror briefly seep into mainstream culture to play upon our excited imaginations. Yes, Halloween is upon us. Ghosts and zombies are everywhere as people are out buying costumes and decorating their homes and workplaces in preparation for the annual haunting event.

The fact that many people love to scare others and be scared is not new. For ages, people have been trying to find ways to frighten others by jumping out from behind doors, using surprise stunts and gimmicks, wearing creepy make-up, and writing haunting messages on mirrors in order to stir up fright. The popularity of horror movies, video games, books and television shows is a testament to just how much people enjoying toying with the idea of mortality.

So have you ever asked yourself what it is about this morbid, creepy and spooky time of year that we enjoy so much? In examining why people enjoy the Halloween time of the year, let’s start by asking why people like to be frightened.

People like to be scared for biological reasons. Fear is the body’s emotional response to a perceived threat or dangerous situation. When we are afraid, our body releases adrenaline and other hormones so that we are able to cope by fighting or fleeing the situation. By watching horror movies, playing scary games, going on ghost walks, or treading through haunted houses, we can experience this fight or flight response while appreciating that we are not in actual danger. In addition, we can experience the excitement and rush of those hormones from the comfort of our own homes or in safe social environments.

According to research, many people enjoy seeking out fearful situations for novelty and excitement, particularly individuals who are high in what Zuckerman coined as ‘sensation seeking’. This is described as “ the seeking of varied, novel, complex and intense situations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal and financial risks for the sake of such experiences (1994, p. 27)”.

High sensation seekers may interpret the experience of fear positively, whereas low sensation seekers view these emotions as unpleasant (Edwards, 1991; Zuckerman, 1996). This might help explain why, when watching a chilling movie, some of us have our eyes glued to the screen and some of us are shielding our eyes behind pillows and popcorn bowls.

Young couple watching horror movie in cinema, girl turning her head away with fear..Halloween provides us with opportunities to safely explore our fears through social bonding. Many of us participate by watching a scary movie or by going to a costume party at this time of year. Researchers have shown that people interested in horror movies may have higher than average needs for social and emotional stimulation (Lawrence & Palmgreen, 1991). The reactions of other people can help enhance one’s own enjoyment of horror movies and scary activities. Additionally, when we are scared, our bodies release a hormone known as oxytocin that has been found to intensify memories and facilitate social bonding. Thus when people share a spooky or spine-chilling experience, they may feel closer to each other.

Halloween also allows us to safely explore our fears and violate social norms for one night of the year. We get to put on a mask and inhabit a character, let go of our inhibitions and celebrate what scares us. The act of dressing up as what we are afraid of allows us to grapple with our fears, to bring them closer and embrace them.

In addition to our desire for social connectedness, personality factors may also impact our reactions to fearful situations. A review of research into how empathy influences people’s reactions to graphic horror films, has discovered that individuals with high levels of empathy, who share the distressing emotional responses of others are less interested in frightening violent movies, regardless of the film’s outcome (Hoffner & Levine, 2005).

In a study of adolescents’ incentives for watching graphic horror, Johnston (1995) identified different types of horror movie watchers. Thrill-watchers, with high levels of empathy and adventure seeking, enjoyed being scared and startled due to their empathy for film protagonists. Gore watchers, on the other hand, were also adventure seeking but with low levels of empathy and fearfulness; their motivations for enjoying these types of movies included having a curiosity in the macabre and grotesque.

The Uncanny, Fear, and Death

When we consider our favorite Halloween costumes and the horror movie characters that scare us – zombies, clowns, werewolves, dolls, vampires and the like – we notice that they are both similar and dissimilar to us. The popularity of these characters may lie in their uncanny characteristics. They are human-like, yet possessing some striking difference: they blur the lines between the living and the dead, between the animate and inanimate.

The uncanny (German “unheimliche”) has been described by Sigmund Freud (1919) as an object or entity that arouses dread due to it being both homely (“heimliche” meaning ‘native’ and ‘belonging to home’) and perceptually unfamiliar. What is it about this incongruence that scares us?

In his exploration of people’s fascination with horror, Carroll (1990, pp. 43-46) notes that the classic ‘horrific being’ is a composite or ‘fusion figure’ that combines attributes at odds with each other. These beings may elicit our fears because of our ingrained sense of self and identity. They violate human norms, leading to feelings of distress (cognitive dissonance theory) and ‘strangeness’.

Fear is rooted in our own mortality. Just as language has allowed us to articulate our identities, differentiate between self and other, and anticipate the future, it has allowed us to understand death as the eventual and inevitable outcome (Langs, 1997).

On Halloween night, we are able to rise above our fear of death by bringing closer those things that mystify and scare us.

Online resources:

https://web.mst.edu/~psyworld/general/dissonance/dissonance.pdf

http://www.apa.org/monitor/feb08/oxytocin.aspx

References:

Carroll, N. (1990). The philosophy of horror, or paradoxes of the heart. New York: Routledge.

Edwards, E. (1991). The ecstasy of horrible expectations: Morbid curiosity, sensation seeking, and interest in horror movies. In B. Austin (Ed.), Current research in film: Audience, economics, and law (Vol. 5, pp. 19–39). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Freud, S. (1919). The ‘Uncanny’. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, 217-256. Retrieved from http://users.clas.ufl.edu/burt/uncanny.pdf

Hoffner, C. A., & Levine, K. J. (2005). Enjoyment of mediated fright and violence: A meta-analysis. Media Psychology, 7, 207-237.

Johnston, D. (1995). Adolescents’ motivations for viewing graphic horror. Human Communication Research, 21, 522–552.

Langs, R. (1997). Death Anxiety and Clinical Practice. London, GB: Karnac Books.

Lawrence, P. A., & Palmgreen, P. C. (1991). A uses and gratifications analysis of horror film preference. In J. B. Weaver & R. Tamborini (Eds.), Horror films: Current research on audience preferences and reactions (pp. 161-178). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Zuckerman, M. (1994). Behavioral expressions and biosocial bases of sensation seeking. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Zuckerman, M. (1996). The psychobiological model for impulsive unsocialized sensation seeking: A comparitive aproach. Neuropsychology, 34, 125-129.

Laura Mitchell

Laura is a Clinical Psychologist (Cand. Reg.) in private practice at Cornerstone Psychological Services. She currently provides individual therapy and works with teens (13+) and adults struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, grief, and trauma.

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