Halloween Series: Why do we love a good scare?

Halloween is my favourite holiday.

True, there are less crass holidays. Or perhaps there aren’t – isn’t everything about gifts and greeting cards now? But even so, Halloween surely rules the roost in terms of out and out tackiness.

I used to live in St John’s Wood in north London, where there is a huge American population. These guys take Halloween seriously. On my way home from work I was almost stampeded by gaggles of 3 ft witches, smothered to death by ream after ream of fake cobwebs, and incinerated by an enormous inflatable dragon which stood bobbing in someone’s front garden.

When I was a child, I hated horror stories. I was that wimpy kid who went home before they put the scary film on at sleepovers. I watched Mel Gibson’s ‘Signs’ and was traumatised. I attempted to watch ‘Scream’ and didn’t make it to Drew Barrymore’s death.

So why the sudden interest in horror in recent years? And what is it that makes us enjoy being scared?

“I laugh in the face of danger!”

I believe that the world is full of wisdom and we learn lessons from the strangest places. So, it follows that I learnt an important lesson about horror from a holographic simulation of Derren Brown on a fairground ride.

On Derren Brown’s Ghost Train (colon, Rise of the Demon), a simulation of the man himself explains that horror resides strangely close to laughter in our twisted brains. It’s why we laugh after we’ve jumped a foot in the air watching Jack Nicholson’s axe come through the bathroom door. It’s why every cinema screening of a horror film is home to a soundtrack of nervous tittering.

Turns out that’s down to the chemicals released in our brains when we’re frightened: adrenaline (so far, so obvious), but also oxytocin, endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. These last few you may recognise as being related to feelings of pleasure and happiness we get from things like cuddling a loved one, doing exercise or eating chocolate.

A defibrillator for the soul

There’s a body of thought that says that watching scary movies or reading scary books, is actually helpful for people who suffer from anxiety.

Research performed by sociologist Margee Kerr found that the “high-arousal negative stimuli” from watching horror films “improves mood significantly”.

It could be the rush of feel-good hormones once the fright is over, or the pride or feeling of success at having survived. But something about being scared makes us feel good.

Personally, I am prone to the blue mood, and often a good scare feels like an electric shock which resets my normal rhythms – like a defibrillator for the soul!

It can be incredibly cathartic to experience terror, but most importantly be totally confident that you’ll overcome it. It’s important that you don’t find the horror too realistic (which could explain my tendency towards ghost and supernatural stories), and that you’re in a safe space when you read or watch it.

Reading a scary book under a blanket on your sofa gives you the rush but also the relief. And it’s the relief that lingers.

Photo of a wintry path strewn with leaves
Why does this picture conjure up images of ghosts and ghouls… and also put me in the mood for a long wintry walk?

It’s good (not) to talk 

Horror stories often tackle taboo topics which can’t comfortably be explored in any other way – which can be quite freeing. And they often give us permission to really embrace the feelings of anxiety that often we’re not really supposed to express in real life.

Think of the most common tropes of horror stories. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and James Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall all come from vastly different social circumstances but have one thing in common: creepy-ass children. Why is it that we are so terrified of kids?

My personal theory is that, although the common narrative would have us believe that raising a child is all sunbeams and rainbows, we all know it isn’t – and horror lets us confront that.

Even as a currently childless person, it’s not a huge stretch for me to think that bringing a child into the world is one of life’s genuinely most terrifying experiences.

And even once the initial shock of their birth is over, that fear lingers on in the thought that we might allow something to happen to them. The overwhelming prospect of the guilt and horror that would follow; the sense of abject failure. Or perhaps the trope of children coming for us represents our subconscious fear of them blaming or hating us in adulthood.

Kids are a walking, talking terror vehicle. Are we allowed to say so? Nope. Only in horror stories are we allowed to admit that we are quite justifiably terrified of our children.

There are countless other examples of horror tropes translating into real life once we dig a little deeper.

I believe that my newfound appreciation of horror stories comes from growing up – but not in the sense you might think. Suddenly, as an adult, I have so many more legitimate anxieties to deal with and it’s not always easy or acceptable to express them. Horror is an outlet for really getting to grips with the sensation of fear, purging it, and feeling better afterwards.

So how to do it? Check back in a few days for my recommendations for super scary reads this Halloween. Sleepless – but happy – nights guaranteed.

2 thoughts on “Halloween Series: Why do we love a good scare?

Add yours

  1. Hi Cat,
    Awesome article! I’ve never liked horror because frankly, being terrified was too much like work (police officer, retired). Have never understood the attraction but this makes so much sense and as a writer, I am interested in what makes people tick.

    Like

    1. Hi T.K., and apologies for my glacial response, turns out WordPress has been hiding a few comments from me! It sounds like your career provided more than enough thrills to not need any further ones. I’m quite a recent convert to horror and I genuinely think the reason I like it is the catharsis of being scared, but more importantly, being relieved you’re safe afterwards!!

      Like

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