The Science behind the Scare

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After a ten hour shift at work the other day, I rose from my chair, grabbed a book and a G&T and padded out onto my balcony to soak up the last of the day’s sunshine. It was an idyllic scene. Birds were tweeting in the tree in front of our building, the air was perfumed with the smell of freshly cut grass and I was reading a novel about mutated killer cockroaches. Bliss.

The juxtaposition between the graphic nature of the horror novel that I was reading and the serene setting in which I was reading it amused me. My body was sitting on a sun-soaked balcony on the outskirts of Glasgow, but my mind was on some small island off Cape Cod, watching a man thrash about in his final moments as mutated killer cockroaches ate through his eyes and into his brain. It sounds like a horrific thing to read about, but there I was reading it and not only that, but enjoying it too. I had actively selected a novel about mutated killer cockroaches as my method of unwinding. The thought of one cockroach resting on my body is enough to make me want to unzip my skin and climb out, let alone a legion of them tearing into my flesh and burrowing their way into my organs and bones. So, why was I reading such a novel?

I mean, why does anyone read horror? Why does anyone choose to read a book about things that scare them or make them uncomfortable? As humans, our natural instinct is to avoid things that threaten us and most horror novels are about some sort of threat, be it mutated killer cockroaches (I’ll stop saying that soon, I promise), rabid dogs, zombies, ghosts… The list goes on. We’d run like hell if we stumbled upon one of these creatures while out shopping, and yet we actively seek out the books in which they live. We see them, we buy them and we read them. The thought of our significant other and child being trapped in a sweltering car by a rabid dog is enough to make our hearts hurt, and yet we’re totally fine with reading about this happening to someone else. Why?

Well, I did a little digging and it turns out that we’re not sadists! Yay! We don’t gain pleasure from other people’s suffering! Well, I don’t anyway.

The answer, my friend, is science.

We’ve all heard of the fight or flight response, which is a psychological reaction to something that scares us. When confronted by something scary, be it a shark when we’re swimming in the ocean or a masked figure in a dark alleyway, we naturally experience some level of stress. In response to this, our bodies release a number of different hormones, which in turn activate our sympathetic nervous system. This then triggers a response from the adrenal glands, meaning our systems are flooded with catecholamines, which is the collective name for different types of hormones, including adrenaline and dopamine. When this happens, we experience physical symptoms, such as higher blood pressure and an increased heart rate, symptoms that prepare the body for either ‘fight’ or ‘flight’.

However, the horror genre provide us with a safe scare. This means that our brains can quickly establish that whatever it is that’s triggered this physical response isn’t actually a threat. We relax, meaning that these physical symptoms subside. The physical symptoms are replaced with an intense sense of relief, which then leads to other positive feelings, a phenomenon which is known as excitation transfer. In short, the earlier emotion experienced (horror) intensifies the emotion that follows (relief). In a way, what we experience following a good scare at the hands of a horror novel equates to a natural high.

For me personally, I love horror because I enjoy the vicarious thrill of experiencing the weird, the creepy and the downright terrifying from the safety of my sofa or, as was the case with The Nest, my balcony.

Are you a horror fan? What is it about horror novels that you love so much? Let me know in the comments below.



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Creepy cockroach treat for those of you who made it this far, courtesy of an ’80s horror movie. You’re welcome.

4 thoughts on “The Science behind the Scare

  1. This was a fun and insightful read. I love forays into the science behind our weird behaviours!! On top of those chemical thrills you mentioned, one reason I like horror is that it can (on occasion!) be really thoughtful and artful. Like the movie Ju On! And the book Cujo! And Resident Evil on the Gamecube! They’re classy as can be, y’all. Nice piece Jazz.

    Liked by 1 person

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