The Psychology Behind Why You Love Or Hate Scary Movies

It isn’t just a personal preference, there's science behind it.
Some people can't wait to see Pennywise the clown in "It." Others will take a hard pass.
Some people can't wait to see Pennywise the clown in "It." Others will take a hard pass.

Thousands of people will soon indulge in various Halloween-esque horror films in honor of Spooky Season, ready to scream and be startled.

I will not be one of them.

I loathe scary movies. I’d rather watch paint dry or go to the dentist than willingly sit through a program that’s designed to make me terrified to go to sleep at night. Once, my roommates decided to watch “The Shining” during a rainy afternoon and I locked myself in my bedroom. If I needed to emerge for any reason, I had to ask them if the scene I was exposing myself to was relatively tame.

Turns out my aversion to horror movies isn’t just a personal preference ― it’s a psychological need. Some people are just wired to react differently to this type of content.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for why some people get a thrill out of horror films and some don’t, there are a few possible explanations. Here’s a breakdown, according to experts and research on the subject:

People who love scary movies experience stress differently.

Individuals who are more sensation seeking may gravitate toward scary movies because of how they interpret the body’s reaction to stress, according to Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear and author of “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.” A fear-inducing movie will kick a person’s heart rate into high gear and make the body feel as though it needs to expend energy.

“Some might make a positive meaning out of that ― they feel really alive are grounded in their bodies, almost like how you feel after a really intense yoga class or something that focuses all attention into your body,” Kerr said. “For other people, they might interpret that almost like a panic attack, where they’re feeling a sense of loss of control over what their body is doing.”

People who hate them might be highly sensitive.

Highly sensitive people, or HSPs, can be easily overstimulated by their environment and also tend to be more empathetic than the average person. This means they may have a different or more intense physiological reaction to violent or scary movies, HSP researchers say.

Childhood experiences affect how someone feels about being scared.

People who had positive experiences when they were young with what researchers call “fun scary” ― an experience that startles, but doesn’t contribute to real fear ― already have an internal concept that frames certain scary activities in an exciting way, Kerr said.

“If their parents exposed them to just the right amount or kind of ‘fun’ as a kid ― so not taking them to see ‘It,’ for example, before they have a good a idea of what kind of monsters are real or not exposing them to rollercoasters too early ― can impact whether people will like the whole genre or not,” she explained.

Some people view scary movies as a way to connect with others.

Horror movies are enjoyable for some people when they’re shared with loved ones.

“It can be a really wonderful, social bonding experience,” Kerr said. “We do know that the bonds we make under stress often are more intense, especially with people we already have a positive association with. So if you’re going with your friends and you do something fun and intense and scary, you end up forming more layered, rich memories.”

In other words, whether or not a person likes watching a creepy clown on the big screen all depends on a confluence of factors ― most of which are slightly out of their control.

So, if you need me, I’ll be over here hiding until Halloween is over. It’s not my fault I’m such a scaredy cat.

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