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This is why we enjoy horror films so much according to a psychologist

With Netflix’s latest horror “The Fall of the House of Usher” terrifying viewers, spooky season is well upon us. But why is it that we get such a rush from being scared senseless?

Consistently ranking among the UK’s favourite film genres, many horror films have established iconic status in cinema. As the UK prepares for dark nights and trick or treating, Dr. Jonny Dudley, Psychology lecturer at ULaw, explains why so many of us get hooked on horror.  

Jonny comments: “The horror genre is important in exploring human psychology and understanding in what way something can be frightening.

“Watching a horror film is naturally stimulating, as it triggers our bodies’ fight or flight response, flooding us with neurotransmitters and hormones, as if we were in the scenario the characters face. This adrenaline rush creates an increase in our heart and breathing rate, to ready our body both mentally and physically to respond to such a threat.

“This, however, is all just an involuntary response from our brain, which cannot immediately discern whether the threat we feel is genuine. It takes time for our brain to catch up and realise that Jason Vorhees is not really in our living room but safely onscreen. Meaning that once our brain realises the threat is not genuine, we feel a rush of relief as our body releases endorphins and dopamine, which produce feelings of pleasure.”

While a horrifying jump scare in the moment may not feel great, there is evidence to suggest the rush of adrenaline that comes as a result could be beneficial. Among other things, adrenaline causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure as well as sharper intakes of breaths. In small doses and in a controlled way, these effects can have a mood boosting impact and leave you feeling energised(i).

However, as Jonny explains, there are important factors to bear in mind to keep things to a healthy scare and nothing beyond that: “Apter (1992)(ii) theorised that these feelings of pleasure can only happen if there are three specific barriers in place to keep us reassured that the threat we are experiencing is not real. We require each of these three barriers to be present in some way to enable us to enjoy the post-adrenaline rush of relief.”

The three barriers we need in place to safely enjoy fear are:

1. Physical safety

If there is the smallest doubt that what we are facing is genuine and not simply happening on the screen in front of us, then the fear response is heightened – perhaps to an unenjoyable level. The ability for the human mind to discern between real danger and a knife wielding killer on screen is absolutely vital if we want to find enjoyment in the fear.

2. Detachment from fictional reality

Barrier number two is our ability to detach ourselves from what we are watching or reading. Immersive horror experiences tread the line very closely here, as it becomes difficult to detach when you’re in and amongst it.

The ability to remind ourselves that we are in fact not fleeing Leatherface through the fields of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is going to signal to the body and mind that we’re safe, which will help us enjoy ourselves.

3. Self-confidence in our abilities

If you’ve ever watched a horror and thought “I could survive this…”, then you’re probably more likely to enjoy the film.

Watching slow moving zombies may lead you to believe you could make it out of that scenario, which in turn can prevent us from shifting into full panic. On the other hand, sudden jump scares that don’t give us time to suss out the situation, or impossible odds for the characters onscreen, will more than likely produce a heightened fear response.

Jonny continues: “Enjoyed responsibly, there’s no harm in a good scare. Remember to keep these three barriers up and you’ll be watching The Exorcist alone in the dark all you like… well, you could. I’ll probably still watch it in the company of others in broad daylight behind the safety of a cushion, but perhaps; baby steps.”


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(ii) Apter, M. J. (1992). Dangerous Edge: The Psychology of Excitement. Free Press.


Mezzacappa, E., S. (1999). Epinephrine, Arousal, and Emotion: A New Look at Two-Factor Theory. Cognition and Emotion, 13(2), 181-199.

Zillmann, D. (1996). The psychology of suspense in dramatic exposition. In P. Vorderer, H. J. Wulff, & Friedrichsen (Eds.), Suspense: Conceptualizations, theoretical analyses, and empirical explorations (pp. 199–231). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.