By: Nudrat Ahmed (Bugle Team)

Do you ever find yourself lying awake in one of your family members’ room, questioning what convinced you to watch that scary movie? What in the world were you thinking when you decided to deliberately put yourself in that vulnerable, frightening, (but oh-so-fun) position?

Psychology may have the answers.

Typically, the physiological response when experiencing fear leads to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and widening of the eyes. Shivering may also occur and hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released. These hormones are responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ reaction to scary or dangerous situations. So when we watch a scary movie, we’d expect our fast-beating heart and adrenaline-filled body to be coupled with an impending sense of doom, right?

This does not seem to be the case, which I recently found confirmed when I saw my young cousin running around the living room, squealing ‘Scared! Scared! Fun!’ in sheer delight as he watched an episode of ‘Scooby Doo’. If he was really scared, why did he find it so entertaining? Dutton and Aron (1974) have proposed the misattribution of arousal, based on the two-factor theory of emotion (Schachter & Singer, 1962), which could be a reason behind the ‘exciting’ allure of fear.

The two-factor theory suggests that you have a physiological response to an emotion, then search for cues from your surroundings to identify the emotion. Dutton and Aron’s (1974) study focused on arousal of emotion and attraction; males were stopped by a female experimenter and asked to complete a task on either an arousal-inducing suspension bridge (i.e. high/dangerous) or a non-arousal-inducing bridge (low/safe). The males were given the experimenter’s number to follow-up if they so wished. More males followed-up if they were on the arousal-inducting bridge. Does this suggest a misattribution of arousal? It is proposed the physiological response of adrenaline release was mislabelled as attraction to the female. Perhaps, in reality, it was caution or fear.

Is the same process happening when we experience purposely-frightening stimuli? As we watch scary movies, the external cues may be that we are in the safety of our homes, or with friends and family, leading us to misattribute ‘fear’ as ‘excitement’. It is possible that we willingly put ourselves in ‘environmentally safe’ frightening situations, because instead we feel excitement rather than true fear.

Terr (1989) poses an alternative explanation to why we deliberately seek out fear: control. When reading or watching scary content, the situation is in the control of the individual. Terr (1989) suggests the real fear is loss of control. Let’s face it, when watching Stranger Things, we aren’t concerned that a real Demogorgon* is going to turn up and attack us – the thrill of simultaneous fear and safety can give an impression of ‘mastery’ and control over our fears (and the Demogorgon).

But, what happens to our sense of control after the movie or book has finished? What drives us to lose a little dignity and seek out safety with family members or friends, because we’re suddenly frightened again when it comes to bedtime? Bryant and Vorderer (2013) have suggested it is to do with fear-conditioning. It may be that cues which were repeatedly present in the movie (darkness, silence, trees tapping on a window) are now conditioned to elicit a fear response when you encounter them again – night time brimming full of these same cues.

Whether you enjoy scaring yourself silly or not, it seems likely that you are seeking out misattributed excitement or enjoy simultaneous fear and control. Whilst regret and self-loathing may ensue, there’s probably a high chance you’ll seek out the safe-scariness again!

*Scary demonic reptile monster-thing.


Bryant, J., & Vorderer, P. (2013). Psychology of entertainment. Routledge.

Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of personality and social psychology, 30(4), 510.

Schachter, S., & Singer, J. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological review, 69(5), 379.

Terr, L. C. (1989). Terror writing by the formerly terrified. A look at Stephen King. The Psychoanalytic study of the child, 44, 369-390.

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