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Why do we like horror?


All of my friends, family members, co-workers and this audience should know by now I love horror - killers, monsters, the creepy, scary faces popping up on me without any warning. And I'm not the only one, as you can tell from what's playing at the movies, especially at this time of year. But the research on horror says there are a few good reasons why some people like it. In fact, it sounds like getting scared may actually be good for you. Coltan Scrivner is a research scientist at the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University in Denmark and joins us now. Welcome.

COLTAN SCRIVNER: Hi. Thank you for having me on.

RASCOE: People ask me all the time, like, why would you want to be scared? Why do people enjoy being scared?

SCRIVNER: The classic answer for that, like, going back to maybe the '80s, is that people enjoy being scared because they like the thrill, right? They like the adrenaline rush. We've found that there are at least three kinds of horror fans. Now, the first kind is the adrenaline junkie, right? Those are the ones who enjoy feeling afraid. They enjoy the thrill. But those are only a small minority of people that we've discovered. There's a second type which is called the white knucklers, and this refers to people who sort of clench their fists in fear as they're going through a haunted house. They get kind of a learning experience from this. So horror, whether it's a movie or a book or a haunted house, kind of offers them a chance to push their boundaries and learn the limits of their fear and really learn, like, how they respond when they're afraid. We're not very good or very practiced at dealing with fear and anxiety, and so when inevitably we feel that way, it's really difficult for us to kind of work through that.

RASCOE: And so what's the third one?

SCRIVNER: Yeah, the third type, which we call the dark copers - they seem to use horror or sort of dark themes to deal with existential problems or dark emotional states - so, like, anxiety or fear that they're feeling in their life, and they use scary genres like horror to kind of work through those feelings.

RASCOE: Your research has found that it can be helpful in real life. Like, how so?

SCRIVNER: One thing it can do for you is it helps you learn how to regulate those negative emotions. For example, in the early months of the pandemic, we did a study showing that horror fans were reporting greater psychological resilience when nobody really knew what was going on. Nobody had experienced a global pandemic or a lockdown or anything like that. It's possible that these horror fans are just better at dealing with scary, new experiences because they play with those kind of feelings all the time.

RASCOE: You know, I'm a parent. You know, parents are encouraged to teach their kids resilience. I do want to teach my kids some resilience. I don't know that I want to take them to see "Nightmare On Elm Street," but, like, could showing them, like, sort of scary stuff - like, does that help kids?

SCRIVNER: You know, I think it does. And I think that even if you don't give it to them, kids seek that out. Kids are very naturally curious and naturally love to explore. And I'm sure your kids have played, for example, like, tag or hide and seek before, right?

RASCOE: Yes. Yeah, yeah.

SCRIVNER: So if you think about those games, you know, the premise of tag or the premise of hide and seek is that someone is it, and they're trying to get you. And you either have to run from them, or you have to hide from them.

RASCOE: You got to run for your life (laughter).

SCRIVNER: That's the basic plot of every horror movie, right?


SCRIVNER: Kids do engage in this kind of thrilling, scary play all the time.

RASCOE: And I didn't realize until, you know, reading about this that peekaboo is actually a jump scare for infants (laughter).

SCRIVNER: Yeah, because it's surprising, right? It surprises them because they don't really have object permanence yet.

RASCOE: No (laughter).

SCRIVNER: So if you put your hands in front of your eyes, you do disappear. You're like a ghost, right? You sort of just go away, and you come back, which is really scary.

RASCOE: That's Coltan Scrivner, a research scientist at Aarhus University. Thank you so much for talking with us.

SCRIVNER: Yeah. Thank you. It was a fun conversation.

RASCOE: And have a spooky Halloween but not too spooky.

SCRIVNER: You too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.