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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

. 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.

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.