Spook: On the Psychology of Horror

Dr. Write Seth Wagerman

by Seth Wagerman

In 1973, Warner Bros. released what would become one of the highest-grossing films in history – the first in its genre to be nominated for Best Picture, a winner of two Academy Awards. Was this movie your typically-successful, action-oriented Hollywood blockbuster – the 1973 equivalent of The Avengers or Titanic or Avatar?

Nope. It was The Exorcist.

For the first time in movie-going history, people were waiting in line for hours and in all kinds of weather for a movie they’d been told might literally make them barf in terrorIt wasn’t a lie, either: people vomited and fainted and ran out of the theater in the middle of the film (although many of them went right back in again for more). And the more people staggered out crying or needed the ushers to revive them with smelling salts, the more jazzed the people waiting in line became for what was clearly going to be the ultimate “you might need to be taken away in an ambulance” kind of movie experience.

What is wrong with people? you might ask. Well, lucky you: I happen to be a psychologist so it’s kind of my job to know these things. But more importantly, as a writer, I’m interested myself in the question: why do people like horror so much? And how can I make people barf while reading my novel?

The Straight Dop(amine)

There are actually quite a few theories on why we enjoy horror. Psychoanalysts like Freud would call it catharsis – a way for people to relieve pent-up negative emotions (the same reason we play violent video games). Freud’s protégé Jung believed certain archetypes were buried deep in humankind’s “collective unconscious,” most notably the shadow – the manifestation of our dark sides. In fact, Jung’s “First Test of Courage” is to acknowledge and embrace our shadow – which we might be doing every time we enjoy a monster shredding people up like carnitas for a street taco.

But for my money, the most intuitive explanation comes from research into sensation-seeking. Humans have enjoyed scaring themselves (and each other) from the first time Rak popped out of a dark corner to terrify his cave-mate Zog. Along with the epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol the sympathetic nervous system dumps into our body during the fight-or-flight reaction comes a gush of neurotransmitters – including dopamine, our brain’s natural ‘happy juice.’ And some people are just wired to produce more of it – and for it to linger in the brain longer – than others. So maybe loving Stephen King isn’t just a personal preference; some people are just built that way, chemically.

But even real adrenaline junkies use parachutes when they jump out of planes and wear their seat belts on the roller coaster. And most of us prefer the knowledge that we’re actually in no danger at all – which is why haunted houses and scary stories work so well. A well-crafted tale helps trigger the senses tied to our fear response, but our brain has plenty of time to process the threat and realize it’s not a real danger. So we enjoy the experience of being chased by a serial killer in a novel the same way some enjoy the experience of jumping off of a bridge with a bungee cord. The relative safety makes it feel like a rush rather than a life-or-death situation.

Hacking your Readers’ Brains

There are plenty of blog posts out there by writers on how to scare your readers (make them breathe faster! Use proper pacing and word choice!) so I’m not going to try and do the same. I’m going to offer some advice from the psychology side of things, instead.

  1. Create a character that the reader can identify with, be emotional about, and get attached to.

Research into what are called parasocial relationships shows that when people get attached to a fictional character, they feel like they actually know them; they react to them like real friends. Moreover, these relationships can make readers feel more attractive, smarter, or more powerful – it can even change their behavior or attributes in the real world!

Other research shows that scary passages are more immersive for readers to start with, and that a first person POV might help readers feel more like they’re there in the situation (but third person stimulates the brain as well). Give readers a character who they can build that parasocial relationship with and hit up all their senses with vivid atmospheric descriptions. You’ll create an immersive environment in which your reader will feel like they’re actually experiencing the horror right alongside their friend – your protagonist.

  1. Touch upon all three types of fear.

Researchers believe fear can be broken into three types: innate (genetic) fears, personal (learned) fears, and socially-constructed fears.

Genetic fears are evolutionarily advantageous – they’re why most people don’t care much for spiders, snakes, or heights. Engaging these innate fears works well in many stories (e.g., the Serpent of Slytherin; Aragog or Shelob) because those fears are universal.

Personal fears are harder to work with because they vary so widely, and what terrifies one person (e.g. public speaking) may literally be someone else’s bread and butter (I speak publicly on the job every day!). But it’s worth noting that among the top 10 personal fears are some pretty widespread ones that people can easily relate to being afraid of. And the rest? Lesser-known fears – like automatonaphobia, the fear of dolls, figures, and puppets – can make unique and terrifying stories, as well. Ever see “Chucky?”

Socially-constructed fears vary from culture to culture, from Japan’s demon babies (Sankai) to the UK’s Bloody Bones. That gives you lots of lore to dig into for creating monsters, demons, and rich legends. But all of them share something in common: they in some way defy our understanding of nature and reality. Anything that doesn’t make sense, whether it’s a creature that fails to die when our understanding of biology says it should (or returns from the dead!), or deviance that is purely aesthetic (mouths and limbs where they don’t belong; unnatural movement) will automatically activate those genetic fears of the unknown.

  1. Don’t overshow your hand.

Speaking of our fear of the unknown, realize that it is the most powerful and diffuse human fear you can tap into – it’s why we fear death and the dark. But we can become habituated to anything if we encounter it often enough. Force your readers’ minds to fill in the blanks: if you only show flashes and glimpses of your frightening stimuli, their brains will be forced to invent the rest. And nobody knows how to scare them like THEY know how to scare them. Once the reader understands and can classify the threat (it’s a human killer; it’s a vampire; it’s a zombie) it doesn’t seem as scary. Less is more. The fear is all in the mystery.

The fear is all in the mystery, folks. Now go write a story that needs to be published with a satchel of smelling salts and a barf bag attached. Your readers will apparently thank you for it.

Seth Wagerman is a PhD professor of Personality Psychology, a writer, a cook, a martial artist, and a total nerd. He’s published numerous articles in scientific journals on the intersections of personality and social behavior and is currently working on a YA fantasy novel crammed full of both personality AND psychology. And giant cats.

6 thoughts on “Spook: On the Psychology of Horror

  1. Brilliant article, Seth. Funny you opened with The Exorcist. I sneaked into the theater (under age) to see it one cold winter day. The group of girls I went with all piled their coats in one seat, and I sat next to it. By the end of the movie, I had all five jackets over my head, my fingers in my ears, and I was singing songs to myself.

    Years later, I wrote an article about the movie for an entertainment magazine. When I told the editor that story, she had me include it as a sidebar in the article. It was truly a terrifying film and ruined me on horror flicks for a long time. I’m still a light-weight.

    I’m a big believer, however, that people want to explore their fears vicariously. It helps us feel “prepared.” If there was a zombie apocalypse, for instance, I understand the need to stock up on canned food and carry a large butcher’s knife. I love The Walking Dead. But demons are a whole other thing! How does one get ready for a possession?

    1. My parents drove up to LA to see this new scary movie, taking teenage me … and my little old Jewish grandmother! We hadn’t seen all the news about people becoming ill, so we thought we were so lucky to get center seats close to the screen. Like you, Greta, I sat with my jacket over my head. My poor grandma. I can still hear her shouting, “Oy! Oy!” over the onscreen screaming.

    2. I used to sit with my grad school roommate for hours and plan for the zombie apocalypse. It’s odd because nobody WANTS the end of the world. But the survival scenario is weirdly appealing (from the safety of one’s living room). But you’re right: how do you prepare for demonic possession? Maybe that’s why I can watch zombie films or slasher films but you will never see me watching the Exorcist ever again!

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