Emotional Health

Halloween, Scary Movies, and the Fun Side of Fear

Halloween used to be a kids’ thing, a day when they would dress up in homemade costumes and canvass their local neighborhood for candy. More recently, though, it has become a billion-dollar business by expanding into the adult market. It’s not just for children anymore, but for adults and even their pets, exceeding purchases of 3.4 billion dollars in 2017. This year promises to be bigger than ever.

Besides costumes, parties, T.V. and especially movies, also add to the excitement. The just released 2018 entry into the franchise of Halloween films, begun in 1978 with John Carpenter’s ultra low-budget surprise hit, (also titled Halloween) was number one at the box office this weekend. The new film, again starring Jamie Lee Curtis, whose debut performance in the first version made her a star, once more pits her against the maniacal, relentless killer Michael Myers.

The first film garnered criticism concerning the cliché of “wickedly” sexy girls savagely murdered while the virginal Laurie Strode (Curtis) survived. Nevertheless, its moody style, stark visuals, and vivid performances by Curtis and Donald Pleasance, as the grim psychiatrist trying to capture the killer, who has escaped from an asylum (dressed in white sheets, no less) helped propel it into a megahit. Halloween spawned its own franchise, as well as a whole genre of increasingly violent slasher films.

Halloween itself was relatively free of gore, however. The killings occur mostly off-camera, and there is almost no blood. What makes it so scary is the anticipation and suggestion of violence, the atmosphere of fearful anticipation that suffuses the narrative. You know the maniac is coming, you know he will kill someone, but you don’t know when.

As with most successful horror films, enjoyment depends on the suspension of disbelief. Though in reality many women don’t like dark, empty places, if women didn’t go down into dark basements alone, there would be few horror films. We like these movies precisely because we want to enter a world in which our fears are activated and a sense of danger is vividly and effectively created.

Margee Kerr, an Adjunct Professor of Sociology, University of Pittsburgh, did a study that illuminated the benefits of being frightened. Studying subjects who attended a “haunted house” type attraction, she found that “Guests reported significantly higher mood, and felt less anxious and tired, directly after their trip through the haunted attraction. The more terrifying the better: Feeling happy afterward was related to rating the experience as highly intense and scary.”

As she explains in her book, Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, the EEG data of the subjects those whose mood improved showed decreases in brain reactivity after the experience of being frightened. The decreases were similar to those seen in subjects who do yoga or meditate. It appears that the spike in reactivity caused by the fear leads to lower than average brain reactivity—i.e. a calmer feeling—afterwards. And that is experienced as pleasure.

A similar process occurs when we have nightmares. Psychologists believe that one of the functions of bad dreams is that by vividly depicting our fears as we sleep, heightening tension, they provide a sense of immediate relief when we wake up and realize we were just dreaming.

For example, after I successfully stopped smoking more than 35 years ago, I had a recurring “nightmare” in which I accepted the offer of one cigarette from a friend, but soon that led to me regularly smoking as I used to. I would awaken relieved to find it wasn’t really true. After having this dream for 15 years, that very scenario occurred: I had one cigarette and soon was smoking again. Though I quit a second time, I never had the dream again. It no longer had the power to reassure me because it had actually happened.

Luckily, most of our worst fears, especially those in nightmares, never come true, and being a little bit frightened, or even a lot, can be fun and even beneficial. People differ, of course, and while some are like me and like scary movies but hate risky activities, there are those who enjoy extreme sports like skydiving or mountain climbing. Most of us are content with the more manageable thrills provided by skiing, or the occasional roller coaster, however.

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