Let’s Talk: Why we love things that go bump in the night

A photo of obscured scary faces.

This essay is part of an occasional series called Let’s Talk that provides a forum to share thoughts by Detroit Mercy faculty, staff, alumni or invited guests and is designed to start conversations. It was written by Hannah Tillman ’19, a technical writing intern for Silicon Valley-based artificial intelligence company H2O.ai. Despite all her work with horror genres, she says she gets weak when faced with scary stories. If you would like to contribute to this series, please contact alumni@udmercy.edu.

Hannah Tillman '19 having a decidedly unscary lunch.
Hannah Tillman ’19 having a decidedly unscary lunch.

Every year at this time, we hunt out spook factors and pay them genuine human money to scare us.

Horror movies roll out in force, haunted houses open, Youtubers start exclusively playing horror games, and a few of us even venture to open a spooky book. We seek out horror experiences in controlled environments (movies, haunted houses, video games, etc.) because we know we’re safe when they are over (Dwyer, 2018).

It’s rarer that you find people exploring dangerous grounds where their lives are actually forfeit; we want fear without the repercussions. Haunted houses are generally the closest we ever come to true danger and even then, it is scripted. It is safe.

When it comes to fear there is a tandem response: physical and emotional. Physically, our hearts race, we sweat, we scream, and—in the case of genuine terror—our fight or flight response kicks in; emotionally, anxiety sets in and we panic as our brains try to react to our primal physical reactions. Being scared makes us feel alive, not just because it connects us to our primal response roots (if danger: fight, else: flight), but because our brains flood with adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine (Dwyer, 2018).

There is always a safety net—we are never in real danger when taking horror media head-on—so eventually we are able to intellectually recognize “I am safe” and bask in the euphoria of that brain rush.

In regard to movies, books, and games, there is a voyeurism and an empathetic connection we experience. Since it is not our physical form in danger, our fear is a product of connecting with the other. This starts as a fear for the other but becomes a fear for the self the more we align ourselves with the on-screen/on-page characters; empathy ties us to them and their experience. This sense of connection (and therefore danger) is heightened through prolonged contact to the media leading to medium dissolution—the longer we are tied to the story and its world, the less we notice the screen in front of us or the pages of the book. As such, we begin to experience the fictional world “as immediate and present” (Visch et. al, 2010). Their journey is our journey; their fear is our fear—at least until we close the book or the movie ends.

Even then, we carry that elicited emotional response. When you read a horror story then go to bed in the dark, the sounds of the house and shadows on the wall hold secret threats that were not there before. The fear lingers. This is the point.

We seek out fear to be afraid. We seek out horror to be able to conquer it and keep going—it gives us strength and pride. We are able to dabble in horror, see the darkness that humanity and the supernatural is capable of, and then keep going because everyone wants to feel insurmountable and euphoric at least once in a while.

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