Oct 13, 2023 - Science

Horror movies: Why you love them or hate them

It's Friday the 13th during Halloween month — and if that horrifies or excites you, there's likely a good reason why.

Why it matters: Whether a scary movie makes you feel good or bad depends largely on your early experiences and the context of feeling that intensity.

What's happening: A perceived threat — like a horror movie jump scare — can activate the body's automatic fight-or-flight response.

  • That means the sympathetic nervous system ramps up, leading to increased endorphins and "all of these different neurochemicals that … are trying to help us survive," says sociologist and author Margee Kerr.
  • "While that's the general experience of most humans, it does vary between people and even within the same person — and a lot of that variation can be explained by personal experience and history," Kerr tells Axios.

Between the lines: The physical sensation of your pulse racing and your body's stress response taking over can range from feeling awesome or awful, depending on your perspective.

  • If as a child you dressed up with friends, ate candy and went to Halloween events, "you've got lots of these different environmental context cues that tell you that in this situation, [the fear response] feels good," Kerr says.
  • But if you had a similar physiological response in the past to a truly life-threatening situation, you might want to avoid being scared at all costs, she says.

Something that can help if you do feel uncomfortable: holding someone's hand.

  • Research suggests that when loved ones hold hands, loud sounds and stressful situations don't seem as bad.
  • "You even get a benefit when it's a stranger … just skin-to-skin contact is so powerful," Kerr says.

Of note: If you're wondering why screaming is part of many people's scary-movie response, Kerr says there are theories.

  • It could be an outburst meant to terrify a threat.
  • It could allow more oxygen into the body to help you fight or flee.
  • And/or it could serve as a method of releasing excess energy through our vocal cords.
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