The joy of fear
We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.
Happy Halloween! While you are munching on your hard-earned candy after a night of badgering your neighbors take a minute to think about why we do this. No, I'm not talking about trick or treating; I'm talking about why do we like scary stories, rollercoaster rides, horror films and stuff like that?
Fear is an intense emotion. It can be nasty but it can also be enjoyable depending on the situation. The respose that we get from our body when we are scared is very similar to the response we get when we are excited. If you put yourself in a situation where you see something scary but you are safe you can enjoy the natural high without being in any danger. Also, the feeling of relief that you get after a particularly scary scene or after a particularly gravity-defying rollercoaster loop can be quite enjoyable.
We know systematic desensitization works by putting people in front of the thing they fear and getting them to endure it and relax while keeping themselves in the situation. The reason this works is because the body and the mind cannot keep in a state of high excitement for too long.
Maybe horror films, ghost tales and bungie jumps help some people in a similar way. There isn't a lot of science on this topic but I did come across a study that I thought I'd mention. It's a thesis Patrick Johnson, an art student at the San Diego State University, presented this year. I think it's worth a read if you have the time. He recruited 24 students from the university and got them to watch scary scenes from different horror films. He then interviewed them and used rating scales to find out how scared they were before, during and after the scary scenes.
He found that fear increased to a maximum point and it went down from there even if the scene did not come to a resolution in the action. So, even when the in the scene there was still some danger present the students still experienced relief after their fear maxed out. This effect was strongest when students felt the scary situations were realistic. In the scenes they felt the situation could happen in real life they were more scared but also they were more relieved. Patrick concluded that maybe we use horror stories and scary films to desensitize ourselves and cope with real scary situations better. He could not prove it with this small study but I find his arguments persuasive. Also, I really enjoyed the fact that this was a fine example of research across different disciplines: art and psychology!
So, go on, scare the bejesus out of someone. After all, you are only doing it to help them cope better with stress. They should thank you, really.