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The science behind spooks: Why we’re scared and why we love it

Leading up to Halloween, few things guarantee more goosebumps and jump scares than horror films.

They are the backbone of the spooky fall season, and in any other year void of 2020’s COVID-19 restrictions, scream-craving fans everywhere would normally flock to cinemas during the season.

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In 2017, one of the biggest years in horror film history, box offices collected over $733 million from moviegoers looking to be terrified in the theater, according to The New York Times.

Even in the shadow of the pandemic that’s shifted or outright canceled so many fall festivities, 2020 still promises the tradition of horror films, with dozens of new horror movies released this month for fans of the genre to enjoy from the safety of home. 

But all the affinity for this frightening category of films begs some odd questions: Why do people fear something they know isn’t real, and why do fans enjoy the horror experience, returning to a genre which promises such unpleasant results year after year?

The question of why we fear is one familiar to psychologists and social scientists. 

Biologically, the most important job of the human brain is to keep us alive, explained Dr. Martin Rossman, who writes about human anxiety and stress impacts on the body, in an interview with HuffPost. Evolutionarily, fear and worry played an immense role in ensuring that our ancestors stayed vigilant. 

But as to why people fear such specific things, even irrational things, is another question. According to the Mayo Clinic, both genetics and negative experiences can massively contribute to the root causes of someone’s specific fears and phobias.

The research of Jessica Witt, a psychology professor at Colorado State University who leads the Action-Specific Perception Lab at CSU, reveals a unique, key component of fear: Someone’s personal abilities to overcome something dictate how they perceive it and how afraid they are of it.

“Archers see the target as bigger,” Witt said. “People who do parkour, they see walls as shorter. But it’s not just your ability to act on an object but also the object’s ability to act on you.”

“The raised flesh or goosebumps, the scream that escapes your throat unintentionally, the perspiration that beads up on your skin — all of these are (kind of) evidence of that biological defense system. Horror films are a way to help keep that in working order, in a sense.” -Scott Diffrient, film and media studies professor

But the question still remains. Why do horror movies, viewed in secure spaces and out of reach of reality, scare people so much?

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Witt suggests that part of fear may be intrinsic — that something core to humans dictates their fears and that no matter the skill they reach, that fear remains. 

“No matter how good I get at rock climbing, I’m still scared of heights,” Witt said. “And even though I know that rope’s gonna catch me, I’m still scared to let go.” 

That being said, why people keep returning to the horror genre despite the near certainty of horrid feelings soon to follow seems to be a true mystery.

“It’s such a vexing, paradoxical category of production,” said Scott Diffrient, a CSU film and media studies professor. “Anyone looking in from the outside would be curious as to why we would (want to) submit ourselves to something that promises fear and anxiety.” 

Biologically, Diffrient theorizes that the genre fills a niche that few others do: intense, unavoidable emotional release. 

“It’s also a (kind of) cathartic means of purging ourselves of fear and anxiety in a relatively safe way,” Diffrient said. “No one watching a horror film is going to be stabbed by a slasher, but we can, through these allegorical narratives, put ourselves into the position of a victim.” 

Those aforementioned evolutionary traits of worry and fear are essential to humans, and Diffrient suggests that in society today, adrenaline-pumping, terror-inducing experiences are less common, so horror films stimulate an ingrained part of the brain. 

“The raised flesh or goosebumps, the scream that escapes your throat unintentionally, the perspiration that beads up on your skin — all of these are (kind of) evidence of that biological defense system,” Diffrient said. “Horror films are a way to help keep that in working order, in a sense.” 

Diffrient thinks the importance of horror films is immensely social too and that the impact of the genre goes well beyond what people assume at face value. While many see horror as a recent development in literature, the origins of horror are much older and deeply connected in both style and themes to spoken folklore. 

“In almost all cases, those monsters (in horror films) need not look realistic,” Diffrient said. “Zombies aren’t real, … but what that zombie represents — contagion or predation — those exist in the real world.”

Horror films allow people to feel the simple, adrenaline-fueled responses of their ancient biological mechanisms, Diffrient said, while still being exposed to the deeper themes and more existential dangers of the current world. 

So in the spooky dusks and cold nights leading up to this holiday, don’t be afraid to brave the horror — it might even serve a purpose for you and society at large beyond just scaring you senseless.

Sam Moccia can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @SamuelMoccia.

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