It’s that time of year again where we (pre-COVID) should be lining up outside of haunted houses, spending hours crafting scary costumes and hosting Halloween III movie parties. All to scare ourselves (and others) silly. But why? Why do we like being scared? What draws us to the dark side of things where people are stalked, maimed or even killed?
This delight in discomfort goes waaaay back. Clearly the Victorians were having a heyday with it with stories of Jack the Ripper, Frankenstein, Dracula and mummies curses. Around that time Freud was also developing his theories and actually speculated that humans have a “death drive” that he called Thanatos. Freud believed that humans contained this ultimate duality between a drive for life and a drive for death. To him this made sense, that the natural world would balance things. And as arcane as that sounds many theorists since have, in one way or another, agreed with him.
Freud based his theories on the observations that people who had endured traumas like war seemed drawn to repeat things that reminded them of the trauma. He called this the “repetition compulsion”. He noticed that if you had gone through something terrible you would likely end up drawn to some version of it at some point. I saw this as a play therapist all the time. If a kid had been physically abused he or she would come in and spank or hit the play dolls in a violent manner, as if re-enacting the abuse they had suffered. Freud felt like it was a core human compulsion to revisit things that were traumatic. Horror movies where people are terrified, chased, physically harmed or tortured can be a way for someone who has experienced physical, psychological or sexual trauma to re-play aspects of that out on the screen. And why would we re-play it? Freud and many psychologists after him believe that it is because humans are trying to achieve a sense of mastery or control over the trauma. If I am a child who is abused and I can then “abuse” my dolls I go from being the object of trauma to the perpetrator of it.
However, most of us don’t want to go around threatening, scaring, torturing or beating people up. But we can watch fictitious people do it in horror movies or hear about criminals who have done those things. And in this way we feel like we can take, albeit unconsciously, the position of the person in control. Which relieves the feeling of being vulnerable to the mistreatment of others. If you think that is far-fetched, just go to a boxing match and see the enjoyment that people get out of watching other human beings harm each other. It’s a way to release fear of being harmed.
Beyond instincts towards life or death there is also brain chemistry at work. Dopamine is a chemical that causes reinforcement. For example the brain releases it when you taste sugar which makes you reach for a second and third cookie. Dopamine tells the brain, among other things, that. You want to “do it again!”. Interestingly researcher Kent Berridge at the University of Michigan discovered that dopamine is also released in fear. For pleasure and reward dopamine is released in the front part of a brain area known as the nucleus acumbens. For a fear response it is released in the back of this structure. However the difference between a pleasure response and a fear response is literally only a few millimeters. So perhaps these response can, for some people in some circumstances, become linked. Feeling scared can become pleasurable in some contexts.
Along with dopamine, adrenalin is also released in the fear response. Adrenaline produces a rush— you feel full of energy, alert, ready to tackle anything and full alive. Many people enjoy this state and some even become addicted to it. It’s the feeling you get after rock climbing, skiing down a steep slope or skydiving. But imagine that you could have that amazing rush, that thrilling feeling of conquering a rock face or speeding down a slope full of moguls, without getting off the couch? Introducing the horror movie. Because the brain has trouble distinguishing between imagined situations and real ones in some circumstances our bodies respond to horror movies much the same way we respond to actually feeling afraid in a dark alley. Our adrenaline surges in an attempt to prepare us to fight or flee. And this feeling can be appealing.
It turns out that some people have a more intense response to dopamine than others. Researcher David Zald found that some people’s brains don’t regulate the release and re-uptake of dopamine as well as others. For these people they are receiving bigger doses of dopamine and may derive more enjoyment from risky or scary situations.
Regardless if you are one of those lucky folks who has extra dopamine buzzing around or just a normal amount, it may be that the feeling of getting really scared and having that fight-or-flight reaction, with adrenaline, cortisol and dopamine flowing feels like a great cheat. We feel ready, prepared to kick-but-and-take-names, all while sitting on the couch at home.
Along with watching slasher films there is another dark pleasure that many of us indulge in to get our thrill kick— true crime. This genre has been around since Victorian times and is more popular than ever thanks to podcasts.
But why would we want to hear about such misfortunes of real people? It’s one thing to watch on the screen while an actress is (fake) killed, but perhaps quite another to hear about the tragedies of real people much like ourselves.
In addition to all of the reasons mentioned above about why people love being scared by horror movies true crime offers yet another twist. In true crime we often get the satisfaction of knowing that the perpetrator is apprehended and dealt with. Although this information is sometime withheld until later in the story, allowing us to take the role of investigator and enjoy the “problem-solving” aspect of the story. Humans do love to problem solve. Just take a look next time you are in the checkout aisle of the grocery store— Sudoku, crosswords and word finds abound. Even primates in zoos enjoy puzzle toys and they are standard equipment for the living spaces of our closest relatives.
But why use our problem-solving neurons for crime? Why not ponder how to create the perfect sour dough starter instead? Perhaps it has to do with trying to fend off the fear of death that is a unique mishap of our evolutionary heritage. Terror Management Theory grew out of Ernest Becker’s famous book The Denial of Death as a way to explain how humans manage the knowledge that they will ultimately die. Every organism that has ever existed before humans developed shared one “prime directive” — don’t die. All organisms exist for this one purpose— to continue to live. Humans, as far as we know, are the only organisms that after millions of years of evolution have the knowledge that ultimately this prime directive will fail. We will die, no mater what we do. Terror Management Theory and Ernest Becker essentially state that this is overwhelming to humans and that we have developed many different and elaborate beliefs, systems and behaviors to ward off this anxiety.
In hearing about crimes in high level detail, where one can picture the route taken by the killer, the clothes worn by the victim, the manner of death, a person becomes a voyeur of sorts. We can imagine the scene so vividly, as if we could have been there. And yet we are not. We are cozy on our couch listening to the podcast or reading our book. We have escaped death yet again. In some ways we are trying to trick ourselves that we can outwit our eventual mortality. Terror Management Theory would also predict that as we listen to how other people fell victim we are ticking off the ways we are different from them. They were young, we are older. They lived in the country, we live in the city. We look for difference to reassure ourselves that we will not befall a similar fate. This also reassures us that we will ultimately survive (although of course we won’t!).
Many surveys indicate that true crime is especially popular with women. This may be because women understand their enhanced physical vulnerability compared to men. They listen to true crime, in part, to learn how to avoid the fate of the victims. My own daughter, who was 15 at the time, announced to me as we approached my car in a parking lot “Mom, make sure to see if there is anyone sitting in the car next to us before you go to get in. That’s one way that predators wait to abduct you”. She shared that she had heard this “tip” in a true crime podcast and that she liked to listen to them to learn how to be more “street smart”. This view was affirmed in a study done by Amanda Vicary and R Chris Fraley at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published in 2010 who found that women are more likely to listen to true crime podcasts as a means of trying to arm themselves with information about how to be safe.
Finally in some ways true crime stories are like children’s fables where in the end the band people are punished. That makes us feel safe and like the world has some justice in it after all. If we have to live in a world where bad things can happen, and we ultimately may not be able to protect ourselves from being a victim of such things, at least we can feel better that these people will be harmed as well. Locked up for life or better yet given a death sentence. This restores a sense of order to the world when we are feeling scared and vulnerable.
The moral of the horror and crime story here is, whether you are gunning for adrenaline and dopamine or studying up on how not to become the next cold case, horror and true crime can actually be your friend.
For more reading on this see the article I contributed to by Patti Greco on Health.com!
Enjoy the Halloween season and remember if you have topics you would like to see me write about drop me a note.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.