Science of Happiness

Anna Jastrzembska wonders why we enjoy serial killers, shocks and the gory glory of Saw films

26th October 2015

It’s already this time of the year when Tesco sells two pumpkins for £3, you can buy tacky devil horns everywhere and yet another Paranormal Activity  came out. To celebrate it, I decided to pursue the petrifying truth behind the horror flicks and why we enjoy them. Even if you hate horrors and the creepiest thing you’ll encounter this Halloween will be a half-dressed angel shimmying in the cage in Sinners, you might still want to check if some of this science is at work.

What constitutes the horrors’ allure? The truth is that... we don’t know.  We don’t know how our brains work and scientific explanations are often contradictory. When you watch horrors, your heartbeat rises by up to fifteen beats per minute, blood pressure spikes, muscles tense, palms sweat and skin temperature drops. That is because our brains have not adapted to the new technology. Even though we know that the image is not real, the brain reacts as if it was you being chased by a maniac with a mechanic saw. And that’s the horror paradox- why do we find this fear enjoyable?

One explanation says that it is in male nature to try to master dangerous situations. It was terrifying rituals in the primal tribes and enduring a particularly gore film now- but not only guys enjoy horrors. Other studies explained that watching gore films might be a way of dealing with actual fears and violence- but how many of us have woken up in a cubic cell filled with booby traps?

There are more disturbing theories out there but I decided to go with the simplest and least alarming one. Horrors are popular because they make our hearts race. Our nervous system is like a muscle that needs some exercise, for example jumping out of your seat when the serial killer appears behind the protagonist’s back. Young people tend to crave strong emotions more, which explains the demographic of the horror flicks. However, it might apply to anyone living a relatively uneventful life. Film is often described as an “ultimate artistic medium” that engages us completely- like dreaming. And the pleasure is a catharsis, the relief because we know it’s not real.

“Our brains have not adapted to the new technology. Even though we know that the image is not real, the brain reacts as if it was you being chased by a maniac with a mechanic saw.”

You have probably noticed that horrors are getting more and more extreme, up to the point that the phrase torture porn was coined to refer to series like Saw. That is because exposure to violence in media desensitises you- if you were shocked by something in the past, you need something even more gore to be shocked again.

However, all brains work differently. Some people crave more excitement, on others horrors might have a lingering effect. There are plenty of cases when people experience nightmares and anxieties years after watching a horror flick, especially if it happened when they were under the age of fourteen. That’s because sometimes memories of horror films are stored in amygdala- the part of brain responsible for emotions. They are treated like any other trauma and might be as hard to cope with.

Therefore, if you feel that horrors might not be your thing, think twice about going to this cinema date. Spending Halloween night eating pumpkin pie or dancing the night away in Tiger might just be more likely to make you happy.

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