Why do we enjoy haunted houses and the like?

As All Hallows’ Eve approaches, so does the wave of seasonal terror which excites so many. Through films, video games, and haunted attractions, many scare themselves seemingly for the simple enjoyment of it. Logically anything that frightens us should thereby repel us, but why then do some continue to be attracted to elements of the macabre?

Horror – especially in the form of motion pictures – has long retained a place within the public imagination. Even this year’s box-office success of the Stephen King adaptation It is symptomatic of a shared desire to be scared by any means.

Films like this set out to immerse their audience; they wish to evoke a reaction. Of course we know that what we see is not real. We know that Freddy Krueger does not stalk teenagers’ dreams, but we suspend our disbelief to allow ourselves to feel fear, and adrenaline. After this fright we temporarily feel a heightened sense of exhilaration and experience euphoria during everyday tasks (referred to in psychology as the ‘excitation transfer process’). Perhaps we seek this excitement as a means of escapism: King himself has suggested that “we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”

The rise of horror-themed video games, such as Dead by Daylight and Friday the Thirteenth, also allow players to navigate eerie situations – as a victim or even killer – from the comfort of their own sofa. These spooks, though, are securely separated from our world, allowing us a window to escape into before returning to safety.

Some, on the other hand, desire a fright closer to reality. Theme parks and haunted houses give opportunities to experience various levels of simulated settings akin to those seen in films. While this gives a similar sense of adrenaline, the end of these ordeals will provide a sense of relief – as if it were a test of bravery from which they have emerged victorious – sometimes even receiving prizes if they last long enough.

However, things do not always adhere to harmless Halloween fun. Some customers’ knee-jerk reactions can be unpredictable. When startled, humans are known to go into fight-or-flight mode, which has resulted in broken noses becoming a common injury among funhouse staff. Fright night attractions encourage their performers to break character if needed, and our own Edinburgh Dungeon enforces a policy that customers should not touch any of its actors. If a horror fan decides to right-hook a part-time zombie, does that scream amusement? Maybe not but, like Jamie Lee Curtis at the end of Halloween, they have faced their fears and lived.

Despite the certainty that we, at least, will make it out alive, many of us will opt to stick for the standard apple bobbing this Halloween rather than watch a clown stalking its juvenile victims. Ultimately it comes down to personal preferences but, whether you like or loathe being scared, the horror genre is undeniably here to stay.

 

Image: Suye Xue

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