Probing Question: Why do people like scary movies?

three girls on couch scream while watching TV
iStockphoto/Rich Legg

A young woman runs alone through a shadowy forest, frantically glancing over her shoulder. No matter how fast she runs, her pursuer keeps getting closer and closer. Suddenly she trips! In an instant, her attacker looms over her, silhouetted as he raises a bloody axe, wet and glinting in the moonlight. The camera zooms in on our heroine's terrified face as she lets out a piercing scream...

If you're a fan of scary movies, you've probably watched a scene like this hundreds of times, on the edge of your seat with each viewing (and maybe peeking between your fingers). Non-fans, though, can't understand the allure. Shouldn't watching another human being—even a fictional one—in the grip of mortal terror be an unpleasant experience? Why do some people like scary movies?

The appeal, says Mary Beth Oliver, depends on both physiological and psychological responses. Physiologically, almost everyone responds to a scary scene, whether violent or suspenseful, in the same way. "You see increased heart rate, galvanic skin response—the general indicators of arousal associated with fear," explains Oliver, co-director of Penn State's Media Effects Research Laboratory. Frightening on-screen events provoke similar (though less intense) fear response in viewers that they'd have if they were actually experiencing those events, she adds.

Researchers call this effect "stimulus generalization," a phenomenon first described in 1927 by Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov. Notes Oliver, "Stimulus generalization implies that if I have an aversion to one thing, I'm going to also have negative associations with related things." So if you're repulsed by worms, seeing Indiana Jones leap into a pit of snakes will cause you some anxiety. Of course, movie snakes don't scare us as much as would real snakes. Still, why would someone afraid of snakes want to see Indiana Jones fall into a pit squirming with them?

One theory, says Oliver, holds that the physical effects of fear pay off in the long run. "Fear arousal intensifies our feelings of delight that our beloved protagonist has somehow escaped," she explains. "So the physiological reaction from the fear can actually enhance our relief at the end of the film, making the movie's inevitably happy ending all the more enjoyable."

Even so, not all moviegoers want to suffer through the fear in order to reach that happy ending. The most die-hard horror movie fans, Oliver notes, typically share a personality characteristic called "sensation seeking." They want a thrill similar to the adrenaline rush sought by skydivers and extreme sports enthusiasts.

"If you look at levels of sensation-seeking across the lifespan, they're often higher during adolescence," says Oliver. "They also tend to be higher among males than females." That might offer one explanation as to why gory, cringe-inducing movies such as those in the Hostel and Saw series appeal mostly to teenage boys. Interestingly, she notes, whereas hyper-violent movies appeal primarily to males, psychological thrillers—where "scary" means "suspenseful" rather than "bloody"—have similar appeal to both genders.

Ultimately, those sensation-seekers get two benefits from scary movies. They get the thrill of feeling afraid when the heroine stumbles and the psycho-killer slowly raises his blade. Then they get to share in her astounding escape. And at the end of the film, viewers can rest assured that she—and they—are safe. At least until the sequel, that is!

Mary Beth Oliver, Ph.D., is professor and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory in the College of Communications. Her email address is mbo@psu.edu.

Last Updated October 28, 2008