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Fear is strong negative feeling and a good way for our brains to keep us out of danger, so why do some people seek it out by watching horror movies?

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[INTRO ♪].

Imagine sitting in a dark theater, holding your breath as a slimy hand reaches toward an unsuspecting kid on screen. Or maybe your heart's pounding as a murderous ghost chases down some heroes.

Horror movies are designed to make us scared, but if you're like me, you love ‘em! Now, that seems kind of paradoxical. Fear is a negative feeling, and can steer us away from bad situations in real life.

So why do so many people watch horror? Psychologists have been asking this question for a while, and the answer is complicated because we all have different emotional needs and experiences. But they have some good guesses.

One series of studies in 2012 by a researcher at the University of Augsberg in Germany surveyed people's reasons for watching movies and TV. She found that people sought out vicarious experiences. You can safely feel things that you might not experience in your everyday life, like excitement, danger, or fear through a car chase or a murder mystery.

Movies also fulfilled other emotional and cognitive needs, like feeling thrilled, having fun, and sharing social experiences with others. But different people want and need to feel different things. One way I might differ from my friend who hates horror movies is our Need for

Affect: how strongly you like to feel emotions and how much you seek or avoid chances to feel them. A study of 119 moviegoers in 2010 found that the people who reported a higher Need for Affect also reported stronger emotions after seeing a horror movie. They had stronger feelings and they enjoyed the emotional experience more than people who'd rather avoid strong emotions. Relatedly, a 2005 meta-analysis of 6 studies showed that if people look for more intense and novel experiences, which is something psychologists call sensation seeking, they tend to enjoy horror movies more.

And this effect seems to start young. A study in 2010, for instance, showed some videos to 123 children that were around 7 years old. It found that kids were more likely to choose to watch a “scary shark” video rather than a “cute little bunny” video if they had more sensation seeking tendencies.

Gender might also be a factor. In many studies, men have reported watching and enjoying horror movies more than women, especially if it's violent or gory. But gender roles seem to be just as important.

Studies in the 1980s and 90s involving teenagers found they enjoyed the experience more when men showed mastery of fear, and women showed sensitivity. Which are stereotypical gender roles. There isn't much modern research involving gender roles and horror, so it'd be interesting to see if these patterns have changed at all.

And then, there's empathy. That 2005 meta-analysis also found that highly empathetic people, basically those who feel like the emotion on screen is contagious, don't enjoy horror movies as much. Which makes sense, since you'd be feeling the intense terror of the victims.

Now, so far we've been talking about horror generally. But there are lots of different stories out there, with different characters, monsters, and plots. So, some researchers hypothesized that the ending of movies might be what's important.

Maybe watching the good guys win leads to enjoyment. An experiment in 2007 involved changing the ending of four horror movies so that the evil was destroyed or came back at the very end. The scientists had 229 college students watch a whole movie with one of the two endings, and evaluate it.

And people seemed to prefer movies where evil was defeated. But it wasn't as simple as “yay, the good guys won!” For instance, some people said they liked the surprise of it: that, unlike many horror movies, it was a nice twist that the monsters didn't survive. It's worth mentioning that all these students wanted to see a horror movie, though, so their experience might not reflect the whole spectrum of moviegoers.

And this study just asked about their general feelings. To understand in-the-moment emotions better, a different pair of researchers conducted a series of studies in 2007 that had people rate their emotions while they watched a 4-minute scary scene from the movie Salem's Lot, rather than after the whole thing. In each study, they recruited roughly 80 young adults who said they either avoided watching horror movies or sought them out.

They found that horror seekers weren't less scared than the avoiders, as some researchers predicted. Both groups showed similar negative emotions, but their positive emotions were different. The more fear the horror-seekers experienced, the more positive emotions they experienced too.

In other words, fear was fun. And they could feel both emotions at the same time. But for the avoiders, it was the opposite.

More fear meant less fun. Plus, the studies found that this group felt happier only after the bad things ended. The researchers wondered if the seekers might enjoy scary things because of a protective network.

That is, their brains do something that protects them from the bad parts of fear. To test this, they showed participants bios of the two main actors in the horror scene and kept their photos on the screen, as a reminder that it was all fake. This time, although everyone reported feeling fear, both the seekers and the avoiders reported more positive emotions the more afraid they were.

Everyone seemed to enjoy a good scare when they had a reality check! So you might love or hate horror movies for lots of different psychological reasons, some of which we might not fully understand. Maybe you feel as terrified as the characters hiding from a serial killer, which just kinda sucks.

Or maybe, like me, you love to experience a zombie apocalypse from the safety of your couch. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, which was brought to you by our patrons on Patreon. If you'd like to help us make more episodes like this, you can go to

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