Why It’s Fun To Be Scared… Sometimes

This week, Jay and I have challenged our colleagues and readers to confront their deepest and darkest fears with Frightfest 2015: The Horror Festival for the Squeamish. In the comment section, DotedOn thanked me kindly for the recommendations but admitted that she would likely be skipping each of them.

I still can’t get why people enjoy being scared. It’s like the idea of getting a root canal treatment by a butcher, I can’t even think about it.

I share her comment because I enjoyed it but also because i didn’t know what to tell her. Why halloween_1978_stilldo I enjoy scary movies? The truth is, I don’t usually. I have the same reaction to most horror trailers (“I’ll pass on this one”). Still, DotedOn has been one of our most supportive and frequent visitors to the site so I put some serious thought into the question of why- if I’m in the right mood- I can find a good scare so satisfying.

I’ll start with a scary story of my own. Just over a year ago, people in Ottawa had a very bad day. Mine started a little after 9 in the morning when I woke up to a text message  from jay advising me to “Stay indoors. There’s a shooter on the loose”. I turned on my TV to discover that there had been a shooting on Parliment Hill, which happen to be six or seven blocks from where I live. With reports of multiple shooters, much of downtown was under lockdown.

Unfortunately, it was grocery day and my plan had been to run straight to the store and get myself breakfast. I waited as long as I could but at 2:00 I decided I needed to venture outside and get something to eat. When I got outisde, I discovered that I was practically the only one who had been so foolish. My usually busy street had barely a driver or pedestrian in sight. I found I was seeing my street as I never had before. I was noticing everything that moved, hearing every sound, alert to any sign of trouble and was more ready to run or fight than I had ever been in my life. My fear made me feel alive.

The experience itself was horrible. I was saddened and angry over the loss of life and over the attack on my city and on my country. Besides, I had what seemed at the time to be good reason to fear for my safety. But in a safe and controlled environment, a similar shot of adrenaline and the heightened arousal that comes with it can be rewarding. According to WebMD, our bodies have similar reactions to horror movies as to real threats. Our heart rate increases up to 15 beats per minute, our palms sweat, and our blood pressure rises. Objectively, though, we know that we’re safe in our living room.

the shiningThe laziest horror movies milk these cheap thrills very effectively with quick adrenaline shots followed by instant relief. “Whoa! Oh, ok, it’s just the cat. Whoa! Oh, ok, it’s just her dad saying goodnight”. Movies like The Shining, The Babadook, and The Blair Witch Project are far more effective at constantly building tension by avoiding the inevitable relief that comes after trying to make you jump out of your seat. These are the ones that really stay with me.

Coming home to a dark apartment after watching a scary movie that has really gotten to me feels just a little bit like that scary day last October. I’m afraid to see what’s waiting for me when I come home but I keep moving forward, slowly and carefully, impressed with myself at how little noise I’m making. I quickly look around the corner into my kitchen and when Jack Nicholson isn’t waiting for me with an axe, the relief I feel was well worth the trip. Once I’ve discovered that the Blair Witch isn’t in my bathroom and Freddy isn’t in my bedroom, my heart is beginning to slow down. Every time I’m scared but keep going anyway, I’m getting stronger, I tell myself. I don’t know if I like horror movies so much as like surviving them.

Anyway, this is how I experience the scary movies that I like. Why do you like horror movies?

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33 thoughts on “Why It’s Fun To Be Scared… Sometimes

    1. Matt Post author

      It’s a good question and I feel like saying that they don’t. Movies like Hostel (which I stopped watching after less than half an hour) don’t work for or even respect the reasons why the old classics did. The power of suggestion, the trust in the audience to let their own imaginations do some of the work for you, and the importance of building and maintaining tension are usually forgotten completely by modern gore-fests and torture porn. I won’t even watch most of them. Thanks for stopping by, Movie Man!

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  1. Salty Popcorn

    Horror movies and being scared would be my total favourite – there is nothing like it. It is just the extreme opposite of going through a box of chocolates and another box of tissues watching sad movies, another I love – but I reckon it is because it makes people genuinely feel an extreme taking us out of the mundane normality of life and we are built for fight or flight and we rarely use the emotion to its extent. Sinister is the film of recent years that scared the fucking hell out of me – I had to turn on every light in my house and eventually turned it off and finished it in the morning. At the time I was living in an old beach house and it was stormy outside and windows were rattling at incredibly inopportune moments, I went into a scare spiral of terror haha.
    Nice article 🙂

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    1. Matt Post author

      I can only imagine. I feel like the question I tried to answer with my post was a little ambitious and I feel like you just articulated something that I wanted to say but had trouble explaining. It’s that break from the mundane that I never got around to addressing.

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  2. bp7o9

    I’m a horror genre convert. Horror films scared the bejebus out of me when I was a kid. Lights on, no sleep, nightmares – all of it. Now, I LOVE horror films, even BAD horror films. I love them in part because I was so scared as a kid. Every time I watch a horror film and don’t get scared it’s a little victory for me. And the art of good horror film is fascinating to me: watching the camera work, the editing, listening to the music; all the factors that build suspense.

    In response to an above query on horror films with buckets of blood, that’s generally called Splat, and they’re made to be funny. Excellent example is Braindead/Dead Alive by LOTR director Peter Jackson. Favorite quote: “You’re mother ate my dog!” Favorite scene: the lawnmower one. Buckets and buckets and buckets of blood.

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    1. Matt Post author

      Yes, I think I pay attention to technique with horror than any other genre. How do you make an audience dread what’s around the corner? How much do you show and how much do you leave it up to the audience’s imagination? There’s so much that can go wrong and so much that offer does.
      What about something like Hostel though? Is that just for laughs? It’s those kinds of movies that I just don’t understand the appeal of.
      Thanks for weighing in. I enjoyed the perspective of a horror convert.

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      1. bp7o9

        I must admit I haven’t seen Hostel yet, so I can’t comment. Lived in Ireland for 14 years, and fell off the face of the earth. Just catching up on all I’ve missed; still about 10 years behind everyone else.

        Any comparisons to older films, or do I just need to SEE it? 😀

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      2. Matt Post author

        Well, I barely lasted half an hour so I’m not the best judge. If you’ve seen the Saw movies it was made possible by film’s like that. It’s more about torture than actual suspense.

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  3. DotedOn

    Great post Matt!! 🙂 Thank you!!
    In my case, I had a bad experience with a man pointing a gun at me (and me fighting the man). In the moment, I did what I thought it was best (protect my family avoiding the man to get into my house). As soon as the episode was over (believe it or not, I made the guy leave), I realized I could have died. I was shaking for over a week and I didn’t go out alone for years. I still get paralyzed if someone puts a hand in their inside pocket of their jacket because that triggers all this crap.
    For me, being scared is awful!! I’m terrified of death.
    I wish I could feel ok again after the horror movie is over, but it’s not that way, there is this residual effect that lasts for a very long time! And I don’t like it!!
    I rather get the root canal done by a butcher 😀

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    1. SLIP/THROUGH - Dan

      Wow. I didn’t know that, Poala. It makes total sense. Horror movies must trigger anxiety from that moment. I wish you didn’t experience that. My takeaway from that is how absolutely strong and powerful you are. You protected your family! Remember that next time you’re scared. Thank you for sharing.

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  4. fragglerocking

    Yep I’m with DotedOn. Just seeing the picture you’ve put at the top brought back all the horribleness of that damned movie! I’ll take my extremes at the other end of the spectrum 😊

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    1. Matt Post author

      Yep, these movies are definitely not for everyone. I’ve only started to get a little more adventurous lately. Because of Frightfest, I think I’ve seen more scary movies in the last three weeks than I have all year.

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  5. filmfunkel

    Great post! 😀

    I think mundane hides the fact that life has no shortage of ways to end us. Out there, all the time, targeting strangers and people we love and one day it will target us. We all know this and it’s scary. Horror just expresses it for us.

    Enjoying horror movies is simply commiserating with the reality of that predicament. And I prefer the weaker artificial doses of facing mortality I get from movies than the indelibly traumatic ones that could visit me through circumstance.

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    1. Matt Post author

      I think you’re onto something. I know I feel sometimes like if I conquer a scary movie, in a way I’m conquering the darkness and dangers in the world. Like, we know there’s lots to be scared of out there so maybe if we stare it down in a movie theatre, we feel better able to face it.

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  6. SLIP/THROUGH - Dan

    Great article with great analysis. I live in Ottawa too, but not downtown. I remember that day. Doted on has posted similar comments on my horror series too. It got me wondering the same thing you posit.

    None of us want to live through violence or horror, a movie let’s us experience the event and terror in a safe environment. Kinda like a war movie or an action flick. Subconsciously, I think it makes us consider how we would react in the same situation, and we borrow some tips. Really, the main draw is the thrill of survival, like a roller coaster.

    When the theater empties after a horror movie, people aren’t silent, shocked, or looking for someone to kill, most of the audience is celebrating, cheering, and laughing. Like your research states, we get adrenaline from watching a horror movie… a.k.a. doing something safer or less daring than skydiving, mountain climbing, or bungee jumping.

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    1. Matt Post author

      I think you might be right. We do question what we ourselves would do in the scenarios we see. Maybe that’s why the victims in these movies are often so stupid. We love to judge them and it gives us confidence that we would have survived in their shoes.

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  7. Problems With Infinity

    Wow that must have been terrifying!! 😱I always love watching horror films, but I end up getting way too freaked out for way too long afterwards, so in general I don’t watch them anymore. But as a kid I used to read horror books nonstop until I stopped being able to sleep at night!

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    1. Matt Post author

      I had that problem too! The books I read used to keep me up all the time. I have a similar reaction to the movies as you do, from the sounds of it. I always think I’m fine until I’m alone at home or trying to sleep afterwards. That’s when I realize how scary the movie was. Thanks for joining the discussion!

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  8. J.

    I don’t tend to watch many horror movies on account of them all being way too familiar. I get frustrated by the reliance on the same cues, characters, gore and the often predictable ‘twists and turns’.

    Still, I love a few of the Nightmare on Elm Street films and, of course, the classic John Carpenter flicks. The tension and atmosphere in them just hasn’t been replicated.

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    1. Matt Post author

      Yes, this is one genre where a movie really needs to be highly recommended to me by people I trust for me to give it a try. I agree that most of them are shit. Thanks for your comment, J!

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