science of us

What Your Ability to Handle Horror Movies Says About You

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I have several friends who are horror-movie buffs; I also have an insatiable need to never be left out of anything. This combination means I’ve had many conversations that go like this: Ooh, what happens? No, it’s okay to spoil it. No, really, I’m not going to see it. I don’t care that it’s not that scary. No, seriously, just tell me, I’ll never see it.

And it’s true. I will never see it. Right now, the it in question is Hereditary, a scary movie that is apparently very scary, but swap in any buzzy horror movie of the past several years and the conversation will go the same way. I swore off the entire genre a full decade and a half ago after seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. It’s admittedly a pretty dumb movie — the twist (spoiler!) is that water is all it takes to kill the aliens — but still, I spent the next few weeks sleeping with multiple glasses of water by my bed, just in case. (Yes, that is literally true. Yes, I was 13. Yes, I’d do it again.)

There are, in other words, two types of people in this world: the ones who can handle horror movies enough to actually go see them, and the ones doomed to a lifetime of bugging their friends about them. If you, like me, fall into the latter category, here are some potential reasons why.

You didn’t grow up on scary movies. Our ability to handle horror is at least partly environmental, explains sociologist Margee Kerr, author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. Some people form early positive associations with fear — maybe their family took a trip to a haunted house every October, or they have fond memories of telling ghost stories around a fire at summer camp. “If we start tying scary things to friends, family, it comes come together in this full picture of this is entertaining, this is a fun thing that we do,” Kerr says. If, on the other hand, you never really had a reason to build that mental bridge between fear and fun, then taking in a scary movie just supplies you with the fear, and not the pleasure of warm and fuzzy memories to temper it.

You get less pleasure out of intense emotions. There’s a concept in psychology called the “need for affect,” which measures the level of intensity at which people want to feel things — not necessarily happiness or other positive emotions, but anything at all. People high in the need for affect “differ in the amount of desire for feeling emotions,” explains psychologist Stuart Vyse, the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. “They find the expression of emotion, even if it’s sadness, to be a pleasant experience.”

And a 2010 study in the journal Communication Research found that those people tend to be the same ones who enjoy horror. When the study authors surveyed a theater full of moviegoers, they found that people high in the need for affect also “experience[d] higher levels of negative and ambivalent emotions and evaluate[d] their emotions more positively on the level of meta-emotions” — in other words, they felt worse, and they also felt better about feeling worse.

You don’t thrive on stress. Physiologically, excitement and fear look a lot alike: “You have a high heart rate, you have elevated adrenaline, you have all the same ingredients,” Kerr says, and those sensations could translate into a positive experience or a negative one depending on how we interpret them. “It’s really the meaning that we make of how our body changes in those moments” — do you feel invigorated, or just panicky?

Pretty unsurprisingly, people who get a kick out of scary movies tend to be thrill seekers in general — or, to put it in psychology parlance, they tend to be “sensation seekers,” a term originally coined by psychologist Marvin Zuckerman to describe people who enjoy novelty and will take risks to attain it. “Sensation seekers look for novel experiences and complicated things and like the experience of arousal,” Vyse says. (Relatedly, a study published last year in the journal Political Psychology also found that people with a preference for horror movies tended to be higher in openness to experience, a personality trait that’s linked to imagination and insight.) People on the other end of the spectrum, on the other hand, like to keep things calm — both their mental state and the situation they’re in.

That’s not to say that these classifications — horror buffs, horror wimps — are totally set in stone. In a forthcoming study in the journal Emotion, Kerr and her colleagues found that a stressful experience can be a positive one if you go in determined to make it so.

“What we saw in the two years of data collection that we have is engaging in fun scary things can be a way to practice being scared,” she says, creating “a sense of accomplishment that can go toward building a greater sense of resiliency.” It’s a process of increasing your tolerance: You survive 90 minutes of fear, you feel more resilient, you become more resilient, and then the next time you watch something scary, you’re less afraid.

If that’s too much work, though, you can always just read about the movie on Wikipedia.

What Your Ability to Handle Horror Movies Says About You