Playing with fear: Not too scary, not too mild

Fear is an aversive emotion to keep us safe in dangerous environments, but fear and enjoyment coexist in frightening leisure activities. Humans seem to deliberately seek out frightening material: Horror movies and novels regularly feature on bestseller lists, interactive horror experiences such as video games and haunted attractions are increasingly common. How much fear do we seek or tolerate? As it happens, “just the right amount.”

A field study in recreational horror shows there is an inverted-U-shaped relationship between self-reported fear and enjoyment, which suggests an optimal fear level at which enjoyment is maximized.

Haunted attractions are illustrative examples of recreational fear in which people voluntarily seek out frightening experiences in pursuit of enjoyment. We present findings from a field study at a haunted-house attraction where visitors between the ages of 12 and 57 years (N = 110) were equipped with heart rate monitors, video-recorded at peak scare points during the attraction, and asked to report on their experience. Our results show that enjoyment has an inverted-U-shaped relationship with fear across repeated self-reported measures. Moreover, results from physiological data demonstrate that the experience of being frightened is a linear function of large-scale heart rate fluctuations, whereas there is an inverted-U-shaped relationship between participant enjoyment and small-scale heart rate fluctuations. These results suggest that enjoyment is related to forms of arousal dynamics that are “just right.” These findings shed light on how fear and enjoyment can coexist in recreational horror.

Andersen, M.M., Schjoedt, U., Price, H., Rosas, F.E., Scrivner, C., and Clasen, M. (2020). Playing With Fear: A Field Study in Recreational Horror. Psychol Sci 0956797620972116.

I love the U-shaped relationships inside our psyche.


Featured Image: Photo from the haunted-house attraction: a woman running from “Mr. Piggy” at Jump-Scare Location (Fig. 1 Op. cit.)

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