Why is it so much fun to feel afraid?

Scared couple watching a movie in a cinema. Andrés Benitez/Westend61

Experts looked at why some people find it thrilling to be scared.

As Halloween fast approaches, a new study has examined the fine line between having fun and feeling afraid.

Scientists from the Interacting Minds Center at Aarhus University were interested to see if there is a link between physiological arousal – for example, an increase in heart rate – and the thrill of being scared. 

To explore this relationship, a group of 110 people were fitted with heart monitors and asked to walk through a haunted house attraction in Denmark. The house had 50 rooms featuring charging zombies, spooky monsters and other live-action scares to make the participants jump. Scientists also watched how the people reacted as they walked through the rooms via close circuit monitors. Once the participants had finished the scary walk, they were asked to rate their levels of fright and enjoyment, and this was compared to changes in their heart rate and how they reacted on-camera.

“By investigating how humans derive pleasure from fear, we find that there seems to be a ‘sweet spot’ where enjoyment is maximised,” said Marc Malmdorf Andersen, lead author of the study and researcher at the Interacting Minds Center at Aarhus University. “Our study provides some of the first empirical evidence on the relationship between fear, enjoyment, and physical arousal in recreational forms of fear.”

The study, which was published in the Psychological Science journal, concluded that horror is most entertaining when it triggers a particular physical response – an increase in heart rate.

However, the experience of being scared becomes less enjoyable if a person feels overwhelmed with fear. The different levels of fear versus fun can vary between people.

“Past studies on recreational fear, however, have not been able to establish a direct relationship between enjoyment and fear,” Andersen explained.

“Conducting our study at a haunted attraction, where participants are screaming with both fear and delight, made this task easier… If people are not very scared, they do not enjoy the attraction as much, and the same happens if they are too scared. Instead, it seems to be the case that a ‘just-right’ amount of fear is central for maximising enjoyment.”


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