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13 Days of Darkness Part 6 – Why Do We Like To Be Scared?



When I was seven or eight years old I begged my parents to let me stay up late and watch Poltergeist with them.  They finally relented, probably to teach me a lesson.  They regretted it.  For the next few nights, I would get in my own bed until I started imagining trees breaking through my windows and toy clowns trying to get me. Then I would get cold and sweaty and sleep at the foot of my parent’s bed.

They didn’t learn their lesson.  About one year later, I watched John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. This time, I knew it would scare me. I knew it would keep me up all night.  I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep in my own bed.  And yet I did it anyways, and the results were even worse that time.  When my eyes would close, I would see the blood in the petri dish leaping out when the hot needle touched it.

Present Day

Things haven’t changed much.  I sleep in my own bed when I get scared, but only because I don’t have any other beds to sleep in.  I don’t like genuine fear and I do have my phobias.  But I like to be frightened by books and movies, although it doesn’t happen very often.  Fear is a hard thing to pull off as a writer.  Gore has become a substitute for plot.  Many popular horror movies and books are now gross exercises in “Are you able to sit through this?”

But they are popular.  Fear sells.  Darkness is sometimes exactly what we seem to want, even though it is not really a pleasant emotion.  Why is this?

Are you one of the people who enjoys a good scare?  If so, why?

Let’s talk.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Girlwithnoname (Jackie) October 24, 2009, 1:40 am

    I go to horror movies to be scared because its the only thing that can get me completely out of my own head. I’ve missed more movies and tv shows (and conversations… and good night’s sleeps) because I’m constantly distracted by ‘stuff’ in my head… work stuff, family stuff, love stuff, whatever… but horror movies are the only thing that can get my complete and total attention and KEEP it for a couple of hours (same goes for things like haunted houses) … so I find horrors & haunted houses to be a great break from myself, but really only on the rare occasion.

    That being said, once the movie or trip through the haunted house is over, the feelings don’t really stick with me for very long. That feeling of fear only lasts for the time I spend actually viewing it.

  • Adam Di Stefano October 24, 2009, 7:13 am

    I’m not a big fan of horror stories, novels or movies. I am, however, fascinated by the psychology behind them.

    In college, I took an English lit class that explored this theme. At the time, I thought I’d be bored to tears by the class, but the professor was excellent, and the material fascinating. We spent the majority of our time reading essays about horror. One that stuck with me was Stephen King’s “Why We Crave Horror Movies.” I’ve never been a huge fan of King’s fiction, but have enjoyed all of his non-fiction that I’ve read to date.

    In his essay, King asserts that every person, no matter how normal, kind, gentle, pacifistic, etc. has a dark side. He refers to this dark side as the gators. In the course of our daily lives, we routinely suppress the gators, and it’s so common that most of us don’t even realize that we’re doing it, but the fact remains that they’re there. They’re hungry and they want to be fed. Allowing the gators to run rampant results in abhorrent behaviour.

    So, the solution, King believes is to keep them locked up, but to occasionally feed them in order to placate them. By indulging in horror, we get a visceral joy without doing anything socially unacceptable.

    I’m likely not doing King’s essay justice, but that’s the gist of it.

  • Valerie McKay October 24, 2009, 8:55 am

    I found your post while surfing through Tweets and listening to Selected Shorts, A Tale of Terror: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/shorts/episodes/2009/10/18. I think you would like it! I enjoy psychological — not gory — horror stories and movies. They were fine in my teens and twenties, but once I had kids, bad things seemed scarier and more real, and they no longer give me the thrill because I knew bad things can happen. Now that I’m older I wonder if I should try again — now that I know that control is an illusion!

  • Jenny October 24, 2009, 9:47 am

    I’ll be honest. I absolutely hate being scared. I went to “Halloween Horror Nights” one year in college, and thank god I went with a guy who offered to buy my ticket, because otherwise I would have complained endlessly that I just paid $40 to feel absolutely miserable for 5 hours :). More props to you for enjoying those scary movies. Red rum.. red rum…

  • Kenji Crosland October 24, 2009, 9:53 am

    I imagine that the hormones our body produces when we watch scary movies do provide us with a sort of adrenaline high. I’m sure there are other chemicals in the mix as well. Dr. Ruth says the best movie to take a date to is a scary movie. It gets the juices flowing (literally and figuratively).

    That said, do we really need a Saw VI???

  • Oleg Mokhov October 24, 2009, 9:58 am

    Hey Josh,

    Just like with dangerous and adrenaline-filled physical activities, being scared lets us feel we’re alive.

    Why the heck would we even want to jump off a bridge, with only a cord holding our leg? We don’t need to be down there. There’s no prize we need to collect. We could easily die. But we still do it to get that adrenaline rush and feel ALIVE.

    Same with horror movies. We don’t NEED to be scared. Why in our right mind would we watch something that purposefully freaks us out? Don’t we try to avoid that? But yet we still watch to feel ALIVE.

    We have that sick sensation of wanting to feel our heart thumping, cold sweat, and constant anticipation.

    In a Wired article on ultramarathon runner Dean Karnazes, his running buddy was quoted as saying: “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention to arrive safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming: Wow!! What a ride!”

    Same thing for our mind. We don’t want to arrive to the grave completely empty and calm, we want some thrills and chills 🙂

    I think I might watch a horror film tonight,

  • Mark Wolfinger October 24, 2009, 10:05 am

    I don’t like to be scared.
    Had nightmares after viewing “The Thing” circa 1950

  • Girlwithnoname (Jackie) October 24, 2009, 3:59 pm


    yes. SAW is by far the SCARIEST movie I have EVER seen. Not for the gore, but for the concept. Something like this COULD happen, and you COULD be the victim and what would YOU do in these circumstances?

    Christ, I sit there TERRIFIED out of my mind when I watch Saw…. and forget all about myself (see comment at the top) the entire time!! It’s awesome! LOL

  • Megan Horton October 24, 2009, 6:35 pm

    Josh I had a hard time with Poltergeist too….I’ve never looked at clowns the same way. Lindsey had this little clown doll that I used to hide every night because I was so scared of it. Mom and dad didn’t let me watch anything scary. I snuck and watched Poltergeist with Bonnie and Amy and boy was that a miserable night. I was in Salt Lake so I couldn’t go crawl in bed with mom and dad. Bonnie and Amy were not sympathetic and just told me to quit being a baby. I had the most awful fear of that clown on Poltergeist for almost a year.

    I like scary movies, but I’m like you, I find little actually scary. I guess I’m a horror snob. I dont think gore is scary at all. It’s gross and I feel gross after watching stuff like that. When I lived in Canada one night I went to the videostore and rented Hostel and Wolf Creek. Needless to say those are not very nice movies and I just felt dark and scared and not too happy after it was all done.

    I don’t know why I like horror. I love to read scary books, and I love to watch scary movies but I’m not sure why…I guess I’m just a sick freak

  • Vanessa October 25, 2009, 3:24 am

    I love being scared. Which is probably why I am now reading Hostage to the Devil for the 7th time since i was just a kiddo. The more horror I expose myself to, the more I am ready for in reality, should I ever have to face it. And really, you never know. Havent they found found something like 12 deminsions so far? No as far as the blood and guts, no thanks. If I want blood Ill go to the butcher. Ick. Twist my mind and make me fear what I cant see and Ill love you forever. Back to my book. Goodnight.

  • Kenji Crosland October 25, 2009, 10:20 am


    Actually I’ve never seen any of the Saw films, but I figured that by number six they were milking the concept dry. I should at least see the first one at least to get a picture of what it’s all about. I’ll put it on the old Netflix queue and see for myself.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 25, 2009, 11:24 am

      Kenji, here’s my two rusty cents, but I would skip Saw. I watched part 1 hoping to be scared and was just bored. Part 2 was worse. then I gave up. When Max is 18 I will be trying to persuade him not to go and watch Saw XXIV.

  • Girlwithnoname (Jackie) October 25, 2009, 1:20 pm

    Josh: one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

    I find the concept of SAW beyond terrifying (because like Vanessa, its not the gore that does it for me, its the mind-f***, and SAW does a fantastic job of that).

    • Josh Hanagarne October 25, 2009, 1:25 pm

      Jackie, I do find the concept scary, just not spread out over 6 movies.

      • Megan Horton October 25, 2009, 2:03 pm

        Josh I agree with you. Saw sucked. Sorry Jackie and Vanessa!! Just my opinion. I guess we just have the same taste being super hella cool siblings and all…Josh you’re right. Max will be going to Saw 789 when he’s a teen. I think the concept for the first one was scary even though I hated the movie, but they only needed to do one, and now it’s just become the go to for Halloween. I hate it. Still I am glad that scary little doll on a bike isn’t wheeling around in my house making me make unspeakable decisions lol.

  • Megan Horton October 25, 2009, 2:05 pm

    Josh remember how “scary” Waxworks was??? I bet you couldn’t sleep for months after we watched that. Maybe you still aren’t sleeping, because I think we watched that this year.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 25, 2009, 3:37 pm

      Megan, I will not comment on Waxwork.

      • Megan Horton October 26, 2009, 6:47 pm

        Why? Too scared????

  • Patty - Why Not Start Now? October 26, 2009, 2:06 am

    Hey Josh – I love this topic. I think we like horror movies because they reveal our shadow side, kind of like what Adam said about Stephen King’s “gators.” Carl Jung proposed that we all have an internal shadow, where we put all the stuff we’re not ready to look at about ourselves (good and bad). Horror movies give us a safe way to unpack that a bit, but we’re still pretty unconscious about it. I do like psychological horror movies. My all time favorite: The 1963 version of “The Haunting” based on Shirley Jackson’s book. I saw it on TV as a kid, probably in 1968. My aunt and I decided to stay up late. We were mesmerized and so scared. At one point in the movie she actually jumped on top of me. It’s become one of those famous family stories, and I will watch that movie any time.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 26, 2009, 8:23 am

      Patty, I love Shirley Jackson. I love her more than just about anything.

  • Liz October 26, 2009, 3:31 pm

    My love affair with horror has deep roots. The youngest of five, I used to sneak downstairs and hide between our two couches (arranged in an L-formation). Through the small opening, I was able to watch the scary movies my older siblings watched after I went to bed. I saw The Omen when I was only five. I also remember watching Carrie this way, but can’t recall my age at the time. Amusingly, the only movie that scared me was laughable flick, “the creature from the black lagoon.”

    As I grew older, I found I was reading at a level that far surpassed my grade. Digging through my parent’s library for books I would enjoy, I came across my father’s Stephen King collection. I read The Dead Zone in fourth grade and fell in love. There wasn’t a Stephen King book published that I didn’t devour over the next ten years. And scary movies — not gory ones but ones that were truly creepy — were my absolute favorites. So horror? Absolutely. Love it.

    All this from a girl who’s afraid to be shut into a closet. Who would have guessed?

    • Josh Hanagarne October 26, 2009, 3:35 pm

      Liz, do you have any favorite horror movies?

      • Liz October 27, 2009, 10:46 am

        Probably The Shining and Psycho. Nothing really stands up against the classics. Most of the better movies today are less horror and more suspense, but if you have any suggestions, let me know!

  • Ethan October 27, 2009, 10:14 am

    I have a brother who’s pretty firmly against being scared. As he once put it: “I don’t get it–why would I ever say ‘Here’s five bucks, scare the hell out of me.'”

    While I don’t entirely agree with his point of view, I think it’s a fair question. I like Patty’s take–horror generally is a genre that (at its best) accomplishes what most good fiction does: it allows us a sufficient degree of remove to be able to look comfortably at the uglier parts of ourselves. Roger Ebert once stated: “I like good horror movies. They can exorcise our demons.”

    I’m also in the minority camp on the horror front–I’m afraid good, compelling works of horror are a vanishingly small fraction of the genre. Torture porn like the “Saw” films and their ilk make me queasy, and at their worst slightly ashamed to be human, but that’s not the same thing as being frightening. (If this observation makes me a snob, I’m right there with you, Megan.)

    I like being scared by horror, I suppose, for the same reason I like laughing at comedies, or feeling sad or amazed or any of the other range of emotions evoked by art generally. You could argue that being scared isn’t a pleasant experience, and that’s true, but not all art has to be pleasant. REALLY good horror can be every bit as brilliant and thought-provoking as any other kind of art (though again, really good horror is discouragingly rare).

    • Josh Hanagarne October 27, 2009, 11:38 am

      Ethan, is that you writing to me, or has that scarab finally buried itself in your cortex? Is this King Lazaree?

      • Ethan October 27, 2009, 3:15 pm

        To paraphrase one of your later posts, that book could have been 700 pages shorter, ideally clocking in at zero pages.

        Of course, that could just be the scarab talking.

        • Josh Hanagarne October 27, 2009, 3:49 pm

          I liked the first 200, but let’s never speak of it again.

  • Joe D. October 29, 2009, 11:22 am

    Poltergeist was on cable over the weekend, and my 9 year old son happened to be in the room and caught some of it, and needless to say, he didn’t like what he was seeing! He’s still talking about it!

    Even watching it at 46 years old, I still think its one scary movie…