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First They Scream, Then They Laugh: The Cognitive Intersections of Humor and Fear

Abstract: On the surface, fear and humor seem like polar opposite states of mind, yet throughout our lives they continually interact. In this paper, we synthesize neurobiological, psychological, and evolutionary research on fear and humor, arguing that the two are deeply connected. The evolutionary origins of humor reside in play, a medium through which animals benignly explore situations and practice strategies, such as fight or flight, which would normally be accompanied by fear. Cognitively, humor retains the structure of play. Adopting a view of humor as requiring two appraisals, a violation appraisal and a benign appraisal, we describe how fear-inducing stimuli can be rendered benignly humorous through contextual cues, psychological distance, reframing, and cognitive reappraisal. The antagonistic relationship between humor and fear in terms of their neurochemistry and physiological effects in turn makes humor ideal for managing fear in many circumstances. We review five real-world examples of humor and fear intersecting, presenting new data in support of our account along the way. Finally, we discuss the possible therapeutic relevance of the deep connection between humor and fear.

Reference: Hye-Knudsen, M., Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, J., Boutwell, B. B., & Clasen, M. (2024). First They Scream, Then They Laugh: The Cognitive Intersections of Humor and FearEvolutionary Psychologyhttps://doi.org/10.1177/14747049241258355

Getting a Kick out of Film

Abstract: During 2020, the year in which the Covid-19 pandemic took its hold on the world, the market share of horror films doubled from 12.04% to 23.63%, by far the largest share in modern history (“Box Office Performance History for Horror Movies”). The global pandemic film Contagion (Soderbergh) topped the iTunes download charts. Why should a film about a global pandemic prove so popular in the midst of a pandemic? One answer that strikes us as plausible was given by a New York Times journalist writing at the beginning of the crisis in the US in March 2020: “The movie hit me squarely in my entertainment cortex, this funny, scary, stylish, soapy, plausible speculation of life during a global outbreak. The appeal now is how it’s proving to be an instructive worst-case scenario of our current freak-out. We’ve turned to it, in part, to know how bad things could get” (Morris, our emphasis).
This explanation might strike one as surprising. One might expect comedic relief to be in high demand in these trying times, and that we would avoid exposure to unnecessarily disturbing content in the midst of an already highly volatile situation. However, recent research on recreational fear shows that quantities of fear that are “just-right” can in fact be highly enjoyable (Andersen et al.). Why do people find it enjoyable to engage with sad, frightening or horrifying narratives? Our aim in this paper is to open up a new perspective on this “paradox” of horror (Carroll) using an emerging theory of the brain as a prediction error minimization machine.

Reference: KMiller, M., Andersen, M. M., Schoeller, F., & Kiverstein, J. (2023). Getting a Kick out of Film. In Worlding the Brain (eds. S. Besser & F. Lysen). https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004681293_005.

Creepiness and the Uncanny

Abstract: To feel nervously and apprehensively “creeped out” is a familiar emotional state, but its cause—what makes something or someone “creepy”—is poorly understood. A recent evolutionary account of creepiness suggests that the emotion arises from a perceived “ambiguity about the presence of threat” (McAndrew and Koehnke 10). However, not all ambiguous threats are perceived as creepy. This article argues that specifically creepy threats arise from disrupted mentalization, by which is meant difficulties in apprehending the mind of another being in such a way as to make that being seem threateningly unpredictable. The authors propose that this explanation of creepiness also explains “the uncanny,” a concept that is closely related to creepiness and to which a much older and larger research literature attaches. Finally, it is suggested that the present account can make sense of some iconically creepy figures of horror fictions, including zombies, ghosts, and ominously unhuman children.

Reference: Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, J., & Clasen, M. (2023). Creepiness and the Uncanny. Style. https://doi.org/10.5325/style.57.3.0322.

Work Hard, Scare Hard? An Investigation of How Mental Workload Impacts Jump Scare Intensity

Abstract: Despite the prevalence and relevance of jump scares in horror video games, there is little empirical research on them. While HCI research commonly uses horror games as experimental stimuli, even less scientific research exists on what makes a jump scare in a game more or less scary. The present between-subject study (n=60) addresses this by investigating whether jump scare intensity—measured physiologically and subjectively—scales with task difficulty. We triggered in-game jump scares at increasing levels of mental workload across four counterbalanced conditions, manipulated using N-back tasks of varying difficulty. Results demonstrate a significant linear relationship between mental workload and physiological arousal. However, this is not the case for subjective perception of arousal elicited by the jump scare. These findings have design implications for horror games. They show that the level of physiological arousal caused by a jump scare can be controlled by changing the difficulty of an in-game task that necessitates a substantial amount of mental work at the same time.

Reference: Terkildsen, T., Engelst, L, & Clasen, M. (2023). Work Hard, Scare Hard? An Investigation of How Mental Workload Impacts Jump Scare Intensity. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interactionhttps://doi.org/10.1145/3611021.

How Stephen King Writes and Why: Language, Immersion, Emotion

Abstract: Many successful novelists offer writing advice, but do they actually follow it themselves? And if so, can it truly account for the success of their novels? We dissect and examine three pieces of writing advice from Stephen King's book On Writing (2000). King counsels writers to (1) write in a simple language to aid readers' narrative immersion; (2) avoid -ly adverbs, especially in dialogue attribution; and (3) avoid the passive voice. We examine these three pieces of advice both theoretically, reviewing them in light of what we know about how literature affects readers from such fields as literary linguistics and evolutionary literary studies, and empirically, using a computational linguistics approach to test whether King follows his own advice and whether it can explain his success as a novelist. We find that King's advice about simple language makes sense if an author's goal is to sell books while his advice against -ly adverbs makes sense if the goal is instead literary recognition. For his advice against using the passive voice, we find no substantial theoretical or empirical basis.

Reference: Hye-Knudsen, M., Kristensen-McLachlan, R. D., & Clasen, M. (2023). How Stephen King Writes and Why: Language, Immersion, Emotion. Orbis Litterarumhttps://doi.org/10.1111/oli.12401.

Collaboration between Aarhus University's Cognition and Behavior Lab, Center for Humanities Computing & the Recreational Fear Lab.

Evil Voices in Popular Fictions: The Case of The Exorcist

Abstract: This article theorizes evil voices in popular fictions by drawing on the theory of conceptual metaphor. We argue that voices can seem expressive of evil if they give the impression of being impure, that is, sickly, infectious, and broken. The reason is that immoral thoughts and behaviors are metaphorically conceptualized as a form of sickness, and this moral sickness finds embodied expression in a sick voice. We then apply this perspective to a case study of The Exorcist, in which we analyze the vocal performance of possessed Regan’s voice actress, Mercedes McCambridge, before ending with some general observations on the moral rhetoric of purity and sickness in fictions.

Reference: Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, J., Hejná, M., Eaton, M., & Clasen, M. (2023). Evil Voices in Popular Fictions: The Case of The Exorcist. Journal of Popular Culture. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpcu.13234.

Collaboration between Aarhus University's Centre of Voice Studies & the Recreational Fear Lab.

The Psychological Benefits of Scary Play in Three Types of Horror Fans

Abstract: Why do people seek out frightening leisure activities such as horror films and haunted attractions, and does the experience benefit them in any way? In this article, we address these questions through two separate studies. In Study 1, we asked American horror fans (n = 256) why they like horror and identified three overall types of horror fans, which we term “Adrenaline Junkies,” “White Knucklers,” and “Dark Copers.” In Study 2, we collected data from Danish visitors at a haunted house attraction (n = 258) and replicated the findings from Study 1 by finding the same three types of horror fans. Furthermore, we show that these three types of horror fans report distinct benefits from horror experiences. Adrenaline Junkies reported immediate enjoyment, White Knucklers reported personal growth, and Dark Copers reported both. These results suggest that frightening leisure activities are not only an outlet for sensation-seeking, and that the allure of horror may have as much to do with learning and personal growth as it has with high-arousal fun.

Reference: Scrivner, C., Andersen, M. M., Schjoedt, U., & Clasen, M. (2022). The Psychological Benefits of Scary Play in Three Types of Horror Fans. Journal of Media Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1027/1864-1105/a000354.

Peek-A-Boo: Fear and Play in Danish Daycare Institutions

Article in Danish.

Abstract in English translation: In this article, we present findings from the research literature on children and young people’s relationship to frightening material. We then present data collected through interviews with teachers from a range of Danish nurseries and kindergartens. Our study shows that curated encounters with frightening material and “the good scare” are extremely widespread in Danish pedagogical practice, even in nurseries. We find a high frequency of activities such as playing in the dark, nursery rhymes with frightening elements, and chase play, as well as more rare staged activities such as encounters with mythical beings in costume, e.g. the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, or the angry troll who is displeased with the three Billy Goats Gruff stomping on his bridge. Finally, the study suggests that the introduction to frightening material is often a tacit, tradition-borne process of enculturation, where pedagogical staff with great sensitivity gauge the children’s receptivity to frightening activities with the purpose of supporting the child’s development and curiosity toward that which is alluring and frightening.

Reference: Andersen, M. M., Schjoldager, E., Petersen, L. H. & Clasen, M. (2022). Titte-bøh! Frygt og leg i danske daginstitutioner. Dansk pædagogisk Tidsskrift.

A Very Nervous Person's Guide to Horror Movies

Abstract: Films about chainsaw killers, demonic possession, and ghostly intruders make some of us scream with joy. But while horror fans are attracted to movies designed to scare us, others shudder already at the thought of the sweat-drenched nightmares that terrifying movies often trigger. The fear of sleepless nights and the widespread beliefs that horror movies can have negative psychological effects and display immorality make some of us very, very nervous about them. But should we be concerned?

In this book, horror-expert Mathias Clasen delves into the psychological science of horror cinema to bust some of the worst myths and correct the biggest misunderstandings surrounding the genre. In short and highly readable chapters peppered with vivid anecdotes and examples, he addresses the nervous person's most pressing questions: What are the effects of horror films on our mental and physical health? Why do they often cause nightmares? Aren't horror movies immoral and a bad influence on children and adolescents? Shouldn't we be concerned about what the current popularity of horror movies says about society and its values? While media psychologists have demonstrated that horror films indeed have the potential to harm us, Clasen reveals that the scientific evidence also contains a second story that is often overlooked: horror movies can also help us confront and manage fear and bring us closer together.

Reference: Clasen, M. (2021). A Very Nervous Person's Guide to Horror Movies. New York: Oxford University Press.

Super-Natural Fears

Abstract: Supernatural fears, although common, are not as well-understood as natural fears and phobias (e.g., social, blood, and animal phobias) which are prepared by evolution, such that they are easily acquired through direct experience and relatively immune to cognitive mediation. In contrast, supernatural fears do not involve direct experience but seem to be related to sensory or cognitive biases in the interpretation of stimuli as well as culturally driven cognitions and beliefs. In this multidisciplinary synthesis and collaborative review, we claim that supernatural beliefs are “super natural.” That is, they occur spontaneously and are easy to acquire, possibly because such beliefs rest on intuitive concepts such as mind-body dualism and animism, and may inspire fear in believers as well as non-believers. As suggested by psychological and neuroscientific evidence, they tap into an evolutionarily prepared fear of potential impending dangers or unknown objects and have their roots in “prepared fears” as well as “cognitively prepared beliefs,” making fear of supernatural agents a fruitful research avenue for social, anthropological, and psychological inquiries.

Reference: Coelho, C. C., Zsido, A. N., Suttiwan, P., & Clasen, M. (2021). Super-Natural Fears. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2021.06.036.

Playing with Fear: A Field Study in Recreational Horror

Abstract: Haunted attractions are illustrative examples of recreational fear in which people voluntarily seek out frightening experiences in pursuit of enjoyment. We present findings from a field study at a haunted-house attraction where visitors between the ages of 12 and 57 years (N = 110) were equipped with heart rate monitors, video-recorded at peak scare points during the attraction, and asked to report on their experience. Our results show that enjoyment has an inverted-U-shaped relationship with fear across repeated self-reported measures. Moreover, results from physiological data demonstrate that the experience of being frightened is a linear function of large-scale heart rate fluctuations, whereas there is an inverted-U-shaped relationship between participant enjoyment and small-scale heart rate fluctuations. These results suggest that enjoyment is related to forms of arousal dynamics that are “just right.” These findings shed light on how fear and enjoyment can coexist in recreational horror.

Reference: Andersen, M. M., Schjoedt, U., Price, H., Rosas, F. E., Scrivner, C. & Clasen, M. (2020). Playing with Fear: A Field Study in Recreational Horror. Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0956797620972116.

Pandemic Practice: Horror Fans and Morbidly Curious Individuals are More Psychologically Resilient during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Abstract: One explanation for why people engage in frightening fictional experiences is that these experiences can act as simulations of actual experiences from which individuals can gather information and model possible worlds. Conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, this study (n = 310) tested whether past and current engagement with thematically relevant media fictions, including horror and pandemic films, was associated with greater preparedness for and psychological resilience toward the pandemic. Since morbid curiosity has previously been associated with horror media use during the COVID-19 pandemic, we also tested whether trait morbid curiosity was associated with pandemic preparedness and psychological resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. We found that fans of horror films exhibited greater resilience during the pandemic and that fans of “prepper” genres (alien-invasion, apocalyptic, and zombie films) exhibited both greater resilience and preparedness. We also found that trait morbid curiosity was associated with positive resilience and interest in pandemic films during the pandemic. Taken together, these results are consistent with the hypothesis that exposure to frightening fictions allow audiences to practice effective coping strategies that can be beneficial in real-world situations.

Reference: Scrivner, C., Johnson, John A., Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, J., & Clasen, M. (2020). Pandemic Practice: Horror Fans and Morbidly Curious Individuals are More Psychologically Resilient during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Personality and Individual Differences. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110397.

Horror, Personality, and Threat Simulation: A Survey on the Psychology of Scary Media

Abstract: Horror entertainment is a thriving and paradoxical industry. Who are the consumers of horror, and why do they seek out frightening media? We provide support for the threat simulation theory of horror, according to which horror media provides a form of benign masochism that offers negative emotional stimulation through simulation of threat scenarios. Through an online survey of genre use and preference as well as personality traits and paranormal beliefs (n = 1,070), we find that sensation seeking and the fifth of the Big Five factors, intellect/imagination, predict liking of horror and frequency of use. Gender, educational level, and age are also correlated with horror liking and frequency of use (males show higher liking and more frequent use, whereas liking and use frequency are negatively correlated with educational level and age). People with stronger beliefs in the paranormal tend to seek out horror media with supernatural content, whereas those with weaker beliefs in the paranormal gravitate toward horror media with natural content, suggesting that people seek out horror media with threatening stimuli that they perceive to be plausible. While frightening media may be initially aversive, people high in sensation seeking and intellect/imagination, in particular, like intellectual stimulation and challenge and expect not just negative but also positive emotions from horror consumption. They brave the initially aversive response to simulate threats and so enter a positive feedback loop by which they attain adaptive mastery through coping with virtual simulated danger.

Reference: Clasen, M., Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, J., & Johnson, John A. (2020). Horror, Personality, and Threat Simulation: A Survey on the Psychology of Scary Media. Evolutionary Behavioral Science. https://doi.org/10.1037/ebs0000152.

Measuring Presence in Video Games: An Investigation of the Potential Use of Physiological Measures as Indicators of Presence

Abstract: Presence has become an increasingly central component of Games User Research (GUR) as developments in technology continuously make modern video games more conducive to the sensation of ‘being there’ in virtual environments. The quality of games is now commonly evaluated based on how reliably they elicit presence; however, no standardized objective measure of presence currently exists. This study investigated two physiological measures, Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) and task-irrelevant Event-Related Potentials (ERPs), as potential objective indicators of presence in games. A total of 34 participants were divided into low or high presence groups based on their self-reported presence evoked from experiencing a horror game while task-irrelevant tones were being played. It was hypothesized that presence is associated with attentional resources being fully absorbed by the game, which would lead to less or insufficient perceptual resources available for processing the concurrent game-irrelevant oddball-task. This effect was expected to manifest as a measurable decrease in early ERP component amplitudes. It was also hypothesized that presence would make players react to emotion-eliciting events as if they were real, which would result in more GSR peaks throughout the game while not impacting event response magnitude. ERP components (N1, MMN and SW), GSR peaks/min and response magnitude were compared between the presence groups revealing significant differences in GSR peaks/min and early ERP components of N1 and MMN, but not in GSR response magnitude. The findings support the hypotheses and show that GSR peaks/min, N1 and MMN correlate with presence and have potential as presence indicators.

Reference: Terkildsen, T. & Makransky, G. (2019). Measuring Presence in Video Games: An Investigation of the Potential Use of Psychophysiological Measures as Indicators of Presentce. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhcs.2019.02.006.

Adrenaline Junkies and White-Knucklers: A Quantitative Study of Fear Management in Haunted House Visitors

Abstract: We investigate approaches to horror entertainment from two common consumer stances: ‘the thrill-seeking stance’ in which adrenaline junkies seek maximal fear arousal and ‘the fear-avoidance stance’ in which so-called white-knucklers seek minimal fear arousal. Visitors of a haunted house attraction (n = 280) were invited to focus on either maximizing or minimizing their fear. Open-ended participant interviews and questionnaire data were used to map how adrenaline junkies and white-knucklers regulate fear, and also how reported fear experience and consumer satisfaction compare across the two groups. A host of antecedent and response-focused strategies, including cognitive, behavioral, and social strategies, were used to up- and down-regulate fear arousal. Notably, the results reveal hitherto uncharted strategies employed by adrenaline junkies to support and maximize their fear experience. Although adrenaline junkies report stronger fear experiences than white-knucklers, consumer satisfaction remains relatively similar across the two groups, indicating that both stances can lead to satisfying consumer experiences. The study thus helps explain the paradoxical appeal of frightening entertainment by illuminating how consumers deliberately up- and down-regulate fear arousal in pursuit of the optimal experience.

Reference: Clasen, M., Andersen, M., & Schjoedt, U. (2019). Adrenaline Junkies and White-Knucklers: A Quantitative Study of Fear Management in Haunted House Visitors. Poetics. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.poetic.2019.01.002.