How Scary Things Make You Feel Afraid And Why You Love It

Presented by Amazon Prime Exclusive Series

Fear is having a big moment in pop culture right now. At the box office and on TV, creepy things are all the rage. But with countless entertainment options at our fingertips, why do we choose movies or TV shows that make us feel afraid? The reason is, of course, because it feels strangely exhilarating. But why?

When we experience fear in entertainment, we’re facing our fears in a safe and controlled way. We process anxiety and frustration with the world through a fictional construct. Watch a killer on the loose, or a zombie horde descend on survivors, and after two hours in the dark, you can walk back out of the theater into the light.

It’s the same reason people get on a roller coaster and face their fear of death. They do it to feel the adrenaline rush and enjoy the sense of relief when they stumble out unscathed, ready for another go.

This may seem counter-intuitive to some, but when faced with our darkest fears, the best strategy is to expose ourselves to them. When we seek out the things that scare us most, the confrontation can lessen their power over us. Fear is productive, and we’ve always been attracted to it.

For as long as humans have told stories, scary tales have been part of our collective experience. Cinema has played host to horror from its very early days with silent film classics like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Horror stories have evolved to reflect the fears of a changing society with the more realistic slasher escapades of the ‘80s to the found footage thrillers of the ‘90s and ‘00s, and then the more recent “torture porn” gore-fests like the Saw series. Fear takes many forms, and we eagerly expose ourselves to them. Look at the box office success of IT, the highest-grossing horror film of all time, for confirmation.

The Science of Fear

Fear is a survival response hardwired deep in the part of the brain called the amygdala. It’s associated with rising levels of stress, pain, and often a deep-seated desire to flee the source of the fear. Fear engages the mind and body, but it can also condition someone to avoid certain places or circumstances to prevent those things from happening again.

The physical effects of watching a grueling experience on screen are similar to what we feel when faced with real-life threats. Your heart races; you may even break out in a sweat. And although you might watch the worst parts through your fingers, you can’t look away.

Why do we keep looking? It’s because taboo is seductive -- we can’t resist it. And horror is a kind of storytelling built on exploring our cultural taboos. It confronts us with the darkest aspects of human nature, pushes all the wrong buttons, and demands that we witness the results.

Horror Tropes and Scary Genre Staples

Some elements of horror are universal. No matter where we’re from or what our background is, these things make us feel fear. They’re usually based on the fear of pain, injury, and chief among them, death itself.

Of all the monsters we have imagined over generations of telling terror-filled tales, the zombie is one of the most dominant figures of fear in horror. This is because zombies are the closest to us and they feel the most real. Zombie stories are easily adaptable to the times and writers and storytellers can use them to represent whatever they need. Above all else, zombies are the embodiment of death; they rise out of their graves to stalk us, and they look just like we do.

But whether it’s the suave, sinister presence of the vampire, the menace of a knife-wielding killer or the otherworldly, incomprehensible madness of some shapeless thing insinuating itself into our bodies, horror’s many forms fuel our desire to face our fears and uncover what lurks in the shadows -- our anxieties and darker sides.

Highest-Grossing Horror Movies

  1. 1.The Sixth Sense ($672.8MM)
  2. 2.Jaws ($470.7MM)
  3. 3.The Exorcist ($441.3MM)
  4. 4.Signs ($408.2MM)
  5. 5.It ($404.3MM)
  6. 6.Hannibal ($351.7MM)
  7. 7.Se7en ($327.3MM)
  8. 8.The Conjuring 2 ($320.2MM)
  9. 9.The Conjuring ($318MM)
  10. 10.Van Helsing ($300.3MM)

Exploring the Mythology

Classic monsters like vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, and witches are all manifestations of our deep-rooted fears of the natural world, each other, and the forces that shape our lives.

Much of the 20th century’s cinematic horrors came from European folklore and other traditions. This is especially the case with the classic Universal monsters and their Hammer horror descendants. Although writers invented many aspects of these stories, for a time, historians genuinely believed that the material was authentic. Even so, much of what defined Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and others in those early films originated from long-ago literary and folklore traditions.

Cultures around the world have tales of ghostly apparitions; similarly, many cultures dabble in the undead, whether they are the zombies of the West Indies, the hopping vampires of China, the pinching undead of Norway, or countless others.

It is their blend of otherness and familiarity that strike terror in our hearts. We know they are variations of us but they are wrong somehow. We are simultaneously repelled and attracted to these monstrous versions of ourselves; in them, we see the worst of us, and we must either face and defeat that power, or it will destroy us.

When the Fear Feels Real

There is an immediacy to fear taken from the real world that led to the success of everything from endless franchises of slashers terrorizing sex-crazed teens to the countless clowns that stalk the screens.

Among other things, horror explores the divide between what is considered normal and what is aberrant. And although that difference can take bizarre and very visibly unique forms, it can also focus on the psychological. What drives a normal-looking person to kill? How can an innocent child grow up to become a cold-blooded murderer? How can an image of youthful delight turn into an apparition of sheer terror?

Horror explores the nightmares of the real world as much as it does those of our fantasies, and in those cases, the effect of these stories are even more palpable. There might be a part of us that realizes that zombies will never really rise up to eat the living or that witches don’t gather around cauldrons casting spells, but when faced with a fear that takes a very real form, we experience an even more heightened reaction. These are not threats from beyond the realm of the real; these are terrors that live with us every day.

Top Terrifying TV Picks

  1. 1.The Twilight Zone
  2. 2.Hannibal
  3. 3.Alfred Hitchcock Presents
  4. 4.American Horror Story
  5. 5.Dark Shadows
  6. 6.Tales From the Crypt
  7. 7.The X-Files
  8. 8.Penny Dreadful
  9. 9.The Outer Limits
  10. 10.The Walking Dead

Why Do We Want More?

The roller coaster cars roll into place. As the last group gets off, laughing and breathing heavily, you settle into your seat, and the roll bar drops into place. You are locked in. Committed. There is no escape.

The cars pull out, and the click-clack of the track tells you that this is inevitable. The journey is one way -- straight up. The cars climb slowly, the tension builds. The suspense is almost unendurable as you see the crest of the hill approaching. And then there you are there, hanging momentarily in space above the park’s highest point before you plunge straight down. The cars whip left and right, round and round. The wind tears at your clothes, almost drowning out the screams of your fellow passengers. Your heart is ready to burst.

And then the roller coaster slows, and the cars roll into place. You get off, laughing and breathing heavily as the next passenger gets into their seat, and the roll bar drops into place.

That is the sensation we chase every time we turn off the living room lights and watch a horror movie. We’ll come back over and over, challenged to face all those scary things that make us feel so afraid. And we positively love it.