The lure of terror


Caitlin Crome

Senior Caitlin Crome and her friend pose with an actor at a local haunted house. While the actor’s mask is terrifying, the two know they are in no real danger.

Grace Halupnik, Multimedia Manager

A shiver down the spine, a wave of uncertainty, a surge of adrenaline–although these responses are biological warning signs, ironically every year Americans seek out these reactions. 

Terror is ingrained in society. There is an entire literary and film genre dedicated to horror and an annual holiday to celebrate it. As Halloween approaches, more opportunities to feel fear arise, from movies to haunted houses. But where does the desire come from to partake in experiences that fly in the face of survival instincts?

Cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer suggested these forms of entertainment resonate in society because they are “minimally counterintuitive.” He explained this as meaning they are plausible situations or characters tied closely to reality but lacking a key feature. For example, a ghost is human-like but has no body. This contradiction presses a “cognitive button” within the brain which makes horror stories or experiences more memorable.

Similarly, clowns and masked figures provoke fear and interest because they impede the ability to read facial expressions and true emotions, a habit ingrained in human nature.

A prime example of this phenomenon is the “Joker” movie, recently released on Oct. 4. The movie came with great anticipation–so much so that some avid fans threatened to shoot up theatres if the movie reviews were not outstanding. Others thought aspects of the film provoked violence and suggested banning the film.

Senior Ashish Abraham viewed “Joker” and enjoyed the film. “I liked the movie a lot because it pushed boundaries in a more edgy way than most superhero movies,” said Abraham. He thought the movie was captivating because of the Joker’s depiction as a normal person, despite Joker’s uncanny urge to commit psychopathic mass murders. Similar to other horror stories, Joker seems like a realistic person, but he lacks a key factor in making him truly human: empathy.

David Rudd, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Science at the University of Utah, added to the conversation by suggesting people seek out horror because they know there is no risk of real danger. If there is no real peril, the fear turns into excitement.

This may be why students flock to haunted houses each October. Senior Riley Gau has visited haunted houses every year of high school. “I really like going haunted housing with my friends because it gives me a sense of an adrenaline rush. Also it’s a fun experience…it’s funny seeing the reactions of my friends,” said Gau. While stumbling upon a real haunted house may not be so appealing, the fact that it is a simulated experience can make it a fun one rather than a terrifying encounter. 

The genre of horror is further set apart from the rest because of the brain stimulation it generates. Thomas Straube and his colleagues at Friedrich-Schiller-University of Jena found that horror does more than just light up the amygdala, the emotion center of the brain. It also triggers the visual cortex, the insular cortex (involved in self-awareness,) and the thalamus. While a smaller portion of the brain is lit up during sudden, unexpected threats, the sustained anxiety that horror creates stimulates the brain extensively.

Abraham agreed this sense of anxiety contributed to his enjoyment of “Joker.” [Psychopathic characters like the Joker] bring a certain type of tension or anticipation that just isn’t really there with other characters,” said Abraham. “They are more than just a physical threat–the fact that they are mentally unhinged leaves the audience unsure what exactly is going to happen.”

While fear is an emotion often avoided, experiences such as movies or haunted houses can turn terror into a desirable and enjoyable event.