Recently, there has been much talk about the fictional persona known as Slenderman, an urban legend that started on the internet and has grown tremendously popular. According to the story, someone or something is leaving notes on trees in the woods, as to resemble the currently popular game, “Slender.” Similar horror games have become popular like “Containment Breach,” in which the player must continue moving without letting the main enemy — a doll-like, concrete creature — see him. The only way to stop the enemy is to stare directly at it. Yet with a blink meter and a method of escape to consider, the game literally forces players to look directly into their greatest fears and not look away.
There is a sense of adrenaline that surges through the human body when danger is afoot, pushing one to sit on the edge of the seat without realizing it, as if to get closer to the fictional experience. What is it that is so enjoyable about being afraid? There are a few theories going as far back as Aristotle that speculate as to why this might be.
In an article for Psychology Today, psychologist Dr. Norman Holland states that Aristotle believed that the cognitive payoff of the experience makes the negative emotions more than worth it. Learning as a reward is also a mentioned theory of Aristotle’s: We as humans learn from all avenues, even from seeing painful things.
Evolution also suggests that both fear and disgust are common signals of danger and that for the sake of survival it is best to know the signs. However, Holland writes that this theory does not explain why people seek out horror experiences.
The immense satisfaction of relief, on the other hand, is an argument for those who seek the fear. Watching someone run from a man with a knife is only enjoyable once he is either free from harm or taken care of, and we can experience relief from the situation, according to a Daily Beast column by Reuters health and science correspondent Sharon Begley.
Just knowing that no matter what happens, regardless of whether it is a film or a haunted house, soon the experience will end and one will walk away unharmed, brings a sensational thrill. “We know before we enter the movie theater that we will feel fear during the movie or the story, but we also know that we will feel pleasure ... because we know we won’t have to do anything about it,” writes Holland.
Predictability also contributes to this safe feeling, when similar horrific elements are patterned in other movies or experiences, some may get satisfaction and relief by just knowing they were right about who was going to die first. Begley writes that the horror genre often follows a Victorian moral code: The good and chaste will be rewarded — and evil punished — in the end, making it a harmless form of escapism.
Thrill-seeking is a contender with many theorists, such as Richard Trubo. In an article for WebMD, he states there are specific types of people that enjoy horror movies whether they seek thrill due to uneventful, closed-off lives or they enjoy the adrenaline rush and hard-beating hearts that result from being terrified. The concept is similar for people who enjoy roller coasters and skydiving.
Some people enjoy horrific movies due to the weird and foreign context presented within them. Specific kinds of viewers tend to enjoy the bizarre creatures or environments in which horror experiences take place. So their sense of curiosity and desire to understand that which is unknown fascinates these curious terror-seeking viewers.
Another theory, dubbed the “snuggle theory of horror enjoyment,” is based on the idea of the typical horror movie date, in which a girl clings to her boyfriend. In an Ignite presentation, PhD student Mike Battista states that this theory describes that in this situation males normally exaggerate positive reactions whereas females usually exaggerate negative reactions. Battista says that people enjoy horror films because they bring people together.
There are a plethora of theories about the nature of the desire for unnatural fear. Regardless of inferences and theories, what many people do not know is that the vulnerability that arises when faced with fictional fears deteriorates as people get older. “Older adults tend not to seek out experiences that make their hearts race. They feel that real life is scary enough,” says Begley. She says that the everyday challenges adults must deal with, like divorce or debt, are much scarier than anything fictional that might come from a movie or video game, and these artificial horrifying events become uninteresting.
For college students, Begley refers to a clinical psychologist Glenn Walters in his theory that horror movies appeal greatly to younger audiences as they use them as tools to cope with greater fears. “They can either succumb [to frightening images] or learn to manage,” says Walters. “By learning to suppress feelings and display mastery or cling to others in a dependent ploy for protection, a person learns to cope with another aspect of his or her environment, a skill that may be useful in dealing with more than just horror pictures.”