Why do we love scary stories? Why do we enjoy that creeping sensation or jolt of terror when we read a ghost story or see a horror flick? Part of the answer has to do with biology. When we are frightened, our bodies fight or flight system kicks in and our amygdala orders up a burst of adrenaline and other hormones like dopamine that go shooting through our system. Fear is a stimulant, and in a setting where we know that we are ultimately going to be okay, it can be an enjoyable feeling.
There is actually an evolutionary component to our intrigue with things that frighten us. Horror films and books offer a safe way for our brains to adapt and respond to scary situations. It works on the same principle that play theory does. Playing strategic games strengthens connections in the brain that help us with critical thinking. In a similar way, scary movies and stories can stimulate connections that are linked to our ability to survive. Some of these connections were created by our DNA and evolved through the development of our species, and others are learned through many types of experience.
There could also be a psychological reason why we like to be frightened. Maybe there is a feeling of power gained when we face our fears and seemingly conquer them. Regardless of the reason, tales designed to frighten us have been around for centuries. Have you ever listened to ghost stories around a campfire? Apparently, that tradition has been passed down for centuries as well. Some were told for practical reasons, like keeping children from straying from home, especially at night.
But the scary stories always had huge entertainment value. Just take a look at this week’s box office numbers. Five out of the top ten movies are horror films. I won’t be running out to see any of these, but I do like an old fashioned gothic novel, ghost story or movie. So tonight I will probably freak myself out as I sit on the couch reading or watching something spooky as the wind rattles my old windows and the radiator makes strange noises in my apartment. I will probably end up sleeping with my covers over my head.