Psychological Benefits from the Horror Genre
The desire for the thrill of fright seems to be something that is consistent with most people. From the enjoyment we get through reading spooky stories, visiting haunted house attractions each year, and by going to see terrifying movies, it is obvious that a lot of us love feeling scared. But, why?
As it turns out, modern psychology has a few key explanations for why people seek out the feeling of fear, and also for the benefits we naturally get from engaging with the horror genre.
First of all, feeling frightened can be a rush, pure and simple. When we experience a good, old-fashioned jump-scare, we are instantly rewarded with a surge of adrenaline. Overall, this is a positive feeling for most people, and it is likely what drives the numbers in attendance at haunted house attractions every year around Halloween.
Then there’s the experience of tension and release that happens during a scary story or thriller-type movie. As we allow ourselves to relax into the fictitious setting being generated in the horror genre, tension inevitably builds as we move further through the story. When we get to the end, when there is a controlled release of the generated tension, any other anxieties we may have been holding onto can move through our body and also let go, simultaneously. Coupled with the reassuring fact that we know the situation of fear is also safely controlled, and has a definite ending, we tend to become more willing to proceed with the catharsis. It is a heightening experience of facing our fears, and then wanting to do it again.
In addition, it is theorized that horror may allow people to purge aspects of their own innate aggressive natures in a socially acceptable way. Because horror and thrillers typically contain elements of violence, parts of our psyche that may otherwise have no other available outlet are allowed to come forward in the mind through the plot of a movie, book, or horror attraction experience. These deep tendencies then gain a sense of wholeness and completion that might otherwise be totally denied to us in everyday life.
In the past, when people have been directly surveyed about some of the reasons for why they like the horror genre, in both movies and books, one of the main reasons cited was that they felt it helped them mentally prepare for worst-case-scenario possibilities. In fact, this is thought to be the core reason that apocalyptic-style horror, which is often at the heart of zombie movies and shows, is so overwhelmingly popular. We intrinsically know that bad things can happen in life, and we seek to be ready to deal with it.
Last but not least, horror, like any other form of fiction, can also be a means of escapism from the rigors and stressors of life. Times of prolonged, high stress, healthy forms of escapism can act as a pressure valve, letting off the proverbially steam so that we can keep on going until we get to the end of the stressful episode in our lives.
Horror indeed has a lot to offer us, if we are brave enough to accept the gifts…
BONUS: For those who might like to explore this subject in greater depth, I highly recommend this TEDx Talk, which discusses what horror can teach us about ourselves and being human.
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