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Why do we like to be scared? How horror movies and haunted houses might help us get through 2020

During a year when more Americans say they’re experiencing stress and anxiety, what’s the appeal of horror movies, haunted houses and being scared?

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Employees scan tickets and put on wristbands at Nightmare on 13th in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017.

Employees scan tickets and put on wristbands at Nightmare on 13th in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017.

Adam Fondren, Deseret News

Is Halloween really scarier than the year 2020?

Halloween is the time of year for haunted houses, horror movies and swapping scary stories. But this year, it’s coming at a time when more people are experiencing stress and anxiety about the real world.

The upcoming presidential election has been especially divisive this year, with anger and hostility spreading on social media and beyond, and it’s taking its toll on Americans. More Americans than ever — 68%, or two-thirds of adults — say that the election is a source of “significant stress,” according to a recent survey for the American Psychological Association.

And increased stress and anxiety has been ongoing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as NPR recently reported.

“For many folks, this year feels like things are way beyond their control,” Jessica Stern, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health, told NBC’s “Today” show.

But even in the midst of these real-world concerns, people still seem to be seeking out fictional scares.

A number of new horror movies have debuted in the past month, and Netflix’s new series “The Haunting of Bly Manor” is currently the most-watched show on the platform in the U.S. Meanwhile, a number of haunted houses are finding creative ways to open safely and still provide scares during the pandemic.

“We wanted to provide people with something to do in a safe way so that they could escape the real nightmares of the world for an hour or so, and come have a fun time in fake nightmares while forgetting about what’s going on outside,” Jake Mabey, general manager of Nightmare on 13th in Salt Lake City, told the Deseret News earlier this month.

During a year of more stress and anxiety, what is it about being scared that we find appealing? Why do people like being scared, and is there a benefit to relieving the stress of 2020 with horror movies and haunted houses?

People like the feeling of being scared for different reasons, according to Coltan Scrivner, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Comparative Human Development at The University of Chicago and one of the researchers on a recent study of horror movie fans during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Some people are “adrenaline junkies,” according to Scrivner. People who enjoy skydiving or bungee jumping might get a similar “rush” from watching a scary movie or going to a haunted house. 

Others are what Scrivner calls “morbidly curious.” People who are morbidly curious like to learn about dangerous situations, which might lead to an interest in serial killers, the “true crime” genre, or even the supernatural.

Of course, not everyone enjoys being scared. There are plenty of people who avoid horror movies and other intense situations. Those people might be more “sensitive” to adrenaline, Scrivner said. While some people are able to “reframe” or “reinterpret” adrenaline as excitement, others experience it as anxiety. 

But for people who do seek out scary experiences, there might be a benefit. A recent study by Scrivner and other researchers found that people who reported being fans of horror movies were experiencing less “psychological distress” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, horror fans reported fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, such as irritability and sleeplessness.

There are a couple of possible explanations for why that’s the case, according to Scrivner. 

One possibility is that people who watch a lot of horror movies or go to haunted houses have more practice experiencing and regulating fear. 

“They’re sort of learning what it feels like to be afraid, or learning what it feels like to be anxious, or perhaps be better at overcoming that feeling of fear and anxiety when it happens in the real world,” Scrivner explained. 

In this publicity photo released by AMC, Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes is shown in a scene from “The Walking Dead.”

In this publicity photo released by AMC, Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes is shown in a scene from “The Walking Dead.” A recent study found that people who say they are fans of horror movies, including zombies, have experienced less “psychological distress” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

AMC, Gene Page, Associated Press

Another explanation is that horror movie fans experience the films like a “simulation” for real world events. For example, though zombies don’t exist in real life, zombie movies can still express themes that are similar to what people are going through. 

Zombie movies are “more extreme, but conceptually, they’re kind of similar” to certain aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Scrivner. 

“There’s an infection going around. People are maybe not as trustworthy as they used to be. Institutions that (people) used to rely on are now either not working or closed. And so it could be the case, too, that people who’ve seen a lot of these movies, they’re not taken by surprise quite as much.”

This isn’t just true of zombie movies. Many horror movies aren’t just trying to scare you — they’re raising a lot of deeper questions, according to Dr. Carl Sederholm, a professor of English at Brigham Young University.

Those questions can range from psychological — like what sorts of things scare us and why — to issues of race, gender or class. 

Some people seek out scary stories or experiences in order to grapple with those sorts of questions, according to Sederholm. He calls it “the puzzle of horror.”

“What’s going on in my brain when I’m experiencing fear? And is it touching a nerve? Is it touching close to home? Is there something that upsets me that I haven’t resolved that horror is reminding me of?”

Horror is not a new genre. In fact, Sederholm says that elements of horror can be traced back to ancient sources. But while many of humanity’s fears have stayed the same over time — like a fear of death — the approach that stories take to those fears have changed.

For example, more recent films like “Get Out” and “The Invisible Man” have begun exploring issues of race and gender through a horror lens. Other new horror movies seem to be trending toward exploring more psychological issues.

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington in a scene from “Get Out.”

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington in a scene from “Get Out.”

Universal Pictures

Some of these new movies are using horror in a metaphorical way to explore issues like addiction, dysfunction, psychological challenges and traumas, according to Sederholm.

“In the broadest sense, I think that horror has gone from external to internal,” Sederholm said. “I think that instead of having the Wolf Man chase you, you have a Boogeyman chase you and then you have your own psyche kind of chase you.”

So what about the year 2020?

Scrivner is currently doing research at a haunted house in Denmark, which, he says, has already been very popular with visitors this year. 

“Even though there are a lot of crazy things going on now, the haunt sold out. People are ready to get out and do these kinds of things,” Scrivner said. 

Though not for everyone, Scrivner says he believes there could be some benefit in seeking out scary experiences this year, when so many people are already experiencing some worry or anxiety. 

“Some people find relief in a kind of outlet for their fears or for their anxiety,” he explained. 

And during a stressful time, watching a horror movie might be more uplifting than you think.

“I think that one of the things about horror that surprises a lot of people is that there is a certain amount of hope,” said Sederholm, the BYU professor. “In those narratives, even though a lot of people die, and a lot of people suffer in various ways, there are survivors.” 

While horror can sometimes be associated with monsters and supernatural creatures, Sederholm says that “horror is mostly about the human” and the strength that characters show in facing overwhelming challenges. 

“They’re not inspirational stories in the same sense (as other stories), but they do suggest that we do have the capacity to rise above the very, very worst that we experience or that we can imagine.”