This Is What Really Happens In Your Brain When You Watch A Scary Movie

by Caroline Burke

Halloween season is upon us, and with it comes candy, obscene outfits, and of course, horror movies that leave us terrified for days. Scary movie marathons in October are about as expected as leaves changing color throughout the fall season. Plenty of people love to watch horror movies, but why do we love getting scared so much?

The world of scary movies has expanded to fit every last bit of the worst parts of humanity, and all of the things we've conjured up beyond humanity, including nightmares, monsters, parallel universes, and everything in between.

There's an endless list of scary movie themes from which you can pick your poison, so to speak: blood, gore, murder, exorcisms, evil babies, just plain evil, haunted houses, haunted dolls, sexually transmitted curses — just to name a few, though the list could obviously go on forever. There's no shortage of ways in which you can scare yourself out of your mind without leaving your couch. But why, oh why, do people love scary movies so much?

It turns out there's a scientific answer for why you watched the entire Chucky series in one night, even after the first one prompted you to immediately turn on all the lights in your house.

According to The Atlantic, there's an evolutionary explanation for why we love scary movies.

When you watch a scary movie, you're triggering the same bodily response as you would in a real-life scary situation. It's called the fight-or-flight response, and it's your body's evolutionary reaction to danger, telling you to either hunker down and stay still, or flooding your system with a boost of adrenaline to help you as you sprint away. You experience this same adrenaline rush when you watch a slasher flick, which explains that tingly, chilly feeling you get in your limbs.

But it's more than just adrenaline; your body also releases a hormone called dopamine when you're in the midst of any thrilling activity. Dopamine is a hormone heavily associated with addictions and risk-taking situations. The amount of dopamine that floods your body heavily affects how much you enjoy being in "dangerous" situations — or watching dangerous situations on TV.

This is where the difference between people who love scary movies and people who can't stand them comes into play.

According to National Geographic, the amount of dopamine your body produces is actually determined by the amount of autoreceptors you have. Autoreceptors are basically these little monitors in your brain that measure the amount of hormones being released in your body, and that tell your body when you've had enough.

So, as National Geographic explains, "the riskier the task, the larger the hit of dopamine." And the fewer autoreceptors you have, the more you're going to enjoy that kick of extra dopamine. On the flip side, the more autoreceptors you have, the less likely it is that you're going to enjoy jumping out of a plane, or watching an evil doll on a murdering rampage, even if you know the latter is fictional.

Beyond the hormonal breakdown of your penchant for scary films, there's also a cultural aspect of why you love these movies so much.

TBH, most of us are just really, really bored.

OK, that's a little harsh. But the sentiment is accurate. Dr. Glenn Sparks spoke to WebMD about the instinctive desire behind why we can't get enough of scary films. Humans want to experience events outside of their "norm." Sparks explained,

Some people have a need to expose themselves to sensations that are different from the routine. While experiencing a frightening movie may have some negatives, individuals often derive gratification because the experience is different.

In other words, you might feel the urge to watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre instead of Office Space simply because you just spent 10 hours confined in a cubicle. You're craving the urge to experience new emotions and situations, and most scary movies are well outside the realm of normal existence. They satisfy an underlying urge to feel displaced from reality, in addition to your craving for the sound of a chainsaw starting up (man, that noise is satisfying).

There's a bit of an asterisk for how to enjoy scary movies, though: You need to feel safe in order to have fun.

The reason you're able to enjoy watching a killing rampage on a corn farm, while being simultaneously appalled by the sounds of gunshots on the news, is simple: In one scenario, you feel safe, and in the other, you don't. The awareness of that screen between you and all that gore is the crucial component to all the fun.

So, if you're looking for the optimal form of scary movie enjoyment, consider a low-key Netflix date. Not only is it an excellent snuggling opportunity, but there's scientific proof that watching a scary movie is a bonding experience.

Overall, don't try to force the scary movie love if you don't naturally have it. Trust your instincts (and your hormones), and when all else fails, set an online countdown for the winter holidays if you need something to look forward to.