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Why Do People Enjoy Being Frightened?

As Halloween approaches, I was asked a really interesting psychological question from Lauren (of Love, Lauren fame) at Revolution Health. She asked, “Why do people like to be frightened? I don’t like horror movies or haunted houses, but some people love that stuff. Why, Dr. Val?”

I scratched my head and looked at her for a moment as images of Saw, Freddie Kruger, and Jason Voorhees (the only Dutch Halloween “slasher” protagonist I know) went through my mind. I offered an unsatisfactory reply, and promised to take this up with someone more learned in the ways of fear. Luckily for me, Dr. Andrew Gerber- a thoughtful psychiatrist whose research focuses on brain response to emotion (how perfect) was up to the task. Here’s what he had to say:

Our enjoyment of being afraid is a wonderful example of how the human mind works in mysterious ways that are often not immediately transparent to our own introspection. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and cognitive scientists are coming up with new ways to study exactly these sorts of things (located in a psychological structure called the “dynamic,” “adaptive,” or “cognitive” unconscious) and have a variety of possible explanations.

1. We like to feel things strongly.

Even if something has a negative part to it, it can be overridden by our preference to feel something as opposed to nothing. This may be the same phenomenon that drives our curiosity (even when it gets us into trouble, like a cat), our restlessness, or the discomfort of boredom. Increasing evidence from brain imaging studies tells us that a large part of our brain is devoted to processing intense emotion. It’s pretty likely that these regions were very important in our evolution and survival as a species.

2. We love the experience of a building up of tension and relief.

The best part of all about being scared on Halloween or in a scary movie is the huge relief at the end when we or our hero emerges safe and sound. A part of us remembers the whole time that relief is coming, so the tension part is worthwhile. There are lots of experience in our life that have the same kind of tension and relief pleasure to them – for example, missing a loved one and then seeing them, being hungry and eating a delicious meal, or being really tired and then getting to relax. You might say that the more the tension builds, the more the relief feels good. Brain imaging studies show that motivational systems located in the deep and archaic part of the brain operate on a tension and relief principle. When this works well, we feel motivated to go about the business of our lives. This very system can go awry in disorders such as depression and drug addiction.

3. We like to work through old situations and make them come out better.

For better or for worse, humans are consummate problem solvers and when things didn’t go well in the past, we like to replay the situation and have it come out differently. We all recall the experience of being scared as a child when it didn’t feel so good. This makes it all the more fun as older children or adults to replay that experience but this time to have the experience come out in a more positive way.

And there you have it – our brains crave “tension and release” to feed parts of our large emotion-processing centers, we like to problem solve in controlled environments where the outcomes are not truly dangerous, and we derive pleasure from strong emotions. That being said, I prefer action flicks to the horror movies myself. Though I’m a sucker for a good Sci-Fi thriller. What about you? What’s your favorite “tension release” movie?This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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One Response to “Why Do People Enjoy Being Frightened?”

  1. LoveLauren says:

    Fascinating! Thanks for answering my question, Dr. Val and Dr. Gerber.

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