It’s no secret that many of us here at Ars are genuine fans of horror. As a child, I would compulsively devour horror short stories and watch classic movies on late-night TV, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957). Then I’d lie awake at night in terror, convinced a werewolf was lurking just outside my bedroom window. (In reality, it was a trick of light and shadow against the curtains.) That’s the central paradox of horror: we both fear the experience of watching a scary movie, or reading a terrifying book, and compulsively seek it out.
According to Mathias Clasen of Aarhus University in Denmark, we seek out being afraid in controlled settings as a means of confronting our fears in a safe environment. Clasen specializes in studying our response to horror in books, film, video games, and other forms of entertainment, and he is the author of Why Horror Seduces. It’s one way we can explore “issues of morality and evil and the contours of our own psychological landscape,” he said. “We find and challenge our own limits. And we may even practice coping strategies. It does not make us fearless, but it does seem to make us better at regulating fear.”
Like me, Clasen has a lifelong love of horror, even though as a child he was terrified of scary stories. “I would have nightmares and would sleep with the lights on,” he admitted. That changed in his teenage years. “What psychologists call a hedonic reversal took place,” he said. “I started feeling this weird attraction [to horror] that I couldn’t really understand.” He devoured the writings of Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, and H.P. Lovecraft. While earning his various degrees in literature, he found a rich collection of dark gothic material in the English literature canon.
“Horror provides us with a means for peering into the dark at no risk and almost no cost.”
Eventually, the horror genre became his specialized area of research. “I think some of my colleagues feel that what I do is kind of morally dubious, but they let me do my stuff,” he said. “Horror provides us with a means for peering into the dark at no risk and almost no cost. It’s a way of simulating threats. The challenge is to take an almost trivial observation like that and explain it scientifically.”
Just last year, Clasen co-authored a study examining the dominant personality traits of horror fans. He and his colleagues—PhD student Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen and personality psychologist John A. Johnson, professor emeritus at Penn State University—recruited more than 1,000 North American participants via crowd-sourcing with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. They had their subjects take the standard Big Five personality test—currently the professional standard for social psychologists who study personality—and looked for correlations between those results and whether the participants did/did not like horror.
“We found a positive correlation between one of those Big Five traits called openness to experience, also called intellect imagination,” Clasen said.
In a more recent study, published in Poetics last month, Clasen collaborated with two of his Aarhus colleagues. All three co-authors are fascinated by the cognitive science of religion, seeking to uncover why invisible supernatural agents play such a huge role in religious belief systems around the world. Horror taps into the same impulse. Co-author Uffe Schjodt studies so-called “dysphoric rituals,” which are rituals that are psychologically or physically painful, like walking on hot coals or sticking needles in the skin. Co-author Marc Malmdorf Andersen studies different forms of play, while Clasen has a hypothesis that, for many people, horror is a form of play.
For their study, the Aarhus team took advantage of the annual Dystopia haunted house in Velje, Denmark, housed in an old fish factory and run by a group of horror enthusiasts, with as many as 300 volunteers pitching in for the entire month of October. In many ways, a haunted house is the perfect laboratory simulation. “We can’t invite people to the lab, hide behind a cover, then jump out and yell, ‘Boo!'” said Clasen. It’s unethical, for starters, but also less immersive. And it turns out that immersion is pretty key to generating fear.
A haunted house “is designed to situate you as the protagonist in a horror story that unfolds in the empirical environment and in real time,” he said. “If you buy into that premise and feel you are personally invested in the things that happen, just like when you’re playing a computer game, the emotional response is going to be so much stronger. Many of the fear-regulation strategies people use serve the function either of sustaining immersion or breaking immersion.”
Junkie or knuckles?
The team asked people attending the haunted house if they would participate in the study; in the end, there were 280 participants. Those who agreed had to choose which coping strategy to employ: try to maximize their fear or minimize it. (The paper describes the two groups as “adrenaline junkies” and “white-knucklers,” respectively.) Clasen et al. found that satisfaction levels were roughly similar in both groups, regardless of whether participants chose to lean into their fear or try to tamp it down.
But while white-knucklers can minimize or down-regulate their fears, the study showed they can only do so to a certain extent. “It’s actually not possible to completely extinguish your fear,” said Clasen. You can tell yourself it’s just the cat knocking around in the basement, not a chainsaw killer, but “the fear system doesn’t care. It doesn’t operate on statistical probability, but on the need to keep the organism alive.”
Clasen and his collaborators are still analyzing tons of data from a follow-up study collected in 2017, where they strapped heart-rate monitors onto the participants and outfitted several of the haunted-house rooms with infrared cameras. That way they could measure heart rates and also track posture and facial expressions.
“The hypothesis is that there’s a sweet spot between too much fear and not enough fear, between predictability and unpredictability, where you feel you have a certain amount of control over the situation, but there’s still a degree of unpredictability,” said Clasen. A third study still in progress will examine the relationship between fear and memory.
Granted, not everyone appreciates the genre. “Lots of people, when you say the word ‘horror,’ hear sh**ty slasher films from the 1980s,” said Clasen. “But horror is so much more than jump scares. [The best horror] gives us psychological, social, or moral insight into the extremes of human experience. It’s psychologically realistic, no matter how outlandish the monsters are.” Hence his love for King’s novels and Lovecraft, as well as the recent Netflix adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House.
“Lovecraft said, ‘Fear is the oldest and strongest emotion.’ I think that’s true,” said Clasen. “We know that the fear system is one we share with a vast range of animals. It’s ancient, buried deep within the brain, the structures that produce fear.” We all know what it feels like to be afraid, and we share many of the same fears. Authors like King and Lovecraft and filmmakers like John Carpenter take that to the next level and turn it into art. “They have an extra well-developed sense not only of how to scare people but how to make people invest emotionally and enjoy being scared,” he said.
As for the emergence of horror/comedy mashups, like Scream(1996), Cabin in the Woods (2012), or Shaun of the Dead (2014), to name a few, that might be tied to the notion of horror as a sense of play, “I think those kinds of intelligent engagement with genre conventions are a way of providing a playful experience,” said Clasen. He sees horror as experiencing something of a renaissance in recent years, prompting a cultural reevaluation of the genre. Perhaps the horror comic subtype is a byproduct of that reevaluation. “I think [horror] is becoming much more recognized as an artistically interesting genre,” he said.
Doctor Strange Director Scott Derrickson would agree. He made his name directing horror films like Sinister (2012) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), and he considers horror “an undervalued form of movie art.” As he said on the Mindscape podcast last October, “[People] like [horror] for the same reason they like roller coasters: it’s the powerful feeling of fear, which I think is arguably the most powerful human emotion.” [Full disclosure: the host of Mindscape is my spouse, Caltech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll.] “For people who are serious horror fans, it gets to some of the most important human questions about good and evil, about metaphysics, the questions of the afterlife, and the meaning of existence and how unspoken and unspeakable fears can be tapped into by great horror.”