The Horror Paradox: Why Being Scared Can Feel Good
by Amy Scholten, MPH
Your heart is pounding. Your hands are clenched. Terror crawls up your spine. You are scared to look at the screen or read any further. It does not get any better than this! Scary movies sell, but why? Why do people love to be scared?
Who Watches Horror Films
The biggest fans of horror movies are teens and people in their 20s. Men like scary movies more than women do. However, plenty of women enjoy the thrill of being thrilled too.
Beyond that, many horror film fans are "sensation seekers." These are people who seek new and sometimes shocking experiences. They seem to want this more than the average person.
Some prefer movies with a buildup of suspense and tension. They may feel for the character as they watch the chilling story. Others like more bloody horror movies.
Basic Horror Themes
A scary film usually involves one of the following themes:
Are Horror Films Good for Bad for You?
Scary movies do not just provoke emotions. They cause our bodies to react too. For some, the reaction is similar to getting high. The body releases hormones that make them feel good.
Watching scary movies is like an addiction to trauma. The movies rev up the nervous system, which results in anxiety and stress. That stress is a thrill for some people. When the movie is over, they feel relief, which makes them feel good and safe again.
For others, watching scary movies makes them feel terrified and bad. Some even have nightmares afterward. If you are prone to nightmares or sleeping problems, you should probably not watch scary movies before bed.
If you struggle with anxiety and phobias, you may not want to watch certain movies. However, some people find it helpful to face their fears on the movie screen. They use it as a form of exposure therapy. This is where a person is exposed to the things they fear, a little at a time. In time, it helps them overcome the fear. This approach is not for everybody—seeing a therapist might be a better option. It is important to know your limits.
Safe and Scared
Perhaps with horror films, we are looking for the same thing. We just need some excitement. Or maybe we need to look at our innermost fears. And we can do this easily within the comfort of a secure environment.
American Psychological Association
Mental Health America
Canadian Psychological Association
Is watching horror films bad for your health? Right as Rain—University of Washington Medicine website. Available at: https://rightasrain.uwmedicine.org/life/leisure/horror-movies-mental-health. Accessed July 1, 2021.
Martin, G Neil. (Why) do you like scary movies? A review of the empirical research on psychological responses to horror films. Front Psychol. 2019; 10: 2298.
Munsey, C. Frisky, but more risky. American Psychological Association website. Available at: Accessed July 1, 2021.
What happens to your body when you watch a scary movie? A Healthier Michigan website. Available at: https://www.ahealthiermichigan.org/2020/10/19/what-happens-to-your-body-when-you-watch-a-scary-movie/. Accessed July 1, 2021.
Last reviewed July 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 7/1/2021
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