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What Psychology Research Says about Why We Like Getting Scared – Illustrated

The interest in “scary stuff” is not a new phenomenon, but our culture’s love for scary content – proven through the enduring popularity of true crime podcasts, vampire lit, and every fall’s big new horror movie – is undeniable.

Yellow background with black wording: "Why we like getting scared." @LindsayBraman.com Image may not be published, presented, or duplicated without permission
Image Description: Yellow background with black wording that reads: “Why we like getting scared. An info-doodle by Lindsay Braman.”

It reveals an obvious truth: (some) people love getting scared! But what drives this fascination? Is it the thrill? The edge-of-your-seat suspense? What is it about scary content that draws people back time and time again? 

Researchers Kerr, Siegle, and Orsini sought out to study this exact topic, which I have transformed into the simple info-doodles below:

th black hair and smiles on their faces hiding under a yellow blanket. Text continues: "Voluntary scary experiences allow us to test our own reactions and others." Next to the word "test" is a check marked box. Research by Kerr, Siegel, and Orsini, 2019. Illustrated by Lindsay Braman.
Image Description: White background with black text. Text reads, “VANE’s shared with people we love can foster trust to rely on them in future (not-voluntary) scary experiences.” Below this is an image of two people with black hair and smiles on their faces hiding under a yellow blanket. Text continues: “Voluntary scary experiences allow us to test our own reactions and others.” Next to the word “test” is a check marked box. Research by Kerr, Siegle, and Orsini, 2019. Illustrated by Lindsay Braman.
White background with black text. Text reads, "During these, parts of the brain SHUT DOWN. This can feel like RELEF for overactive amygdalas (panic center of our brain)." On either side of the phrase "panic center of our brain" are yellow lightening strikes. Below this text is a line that looks like stitches. Text continues: "Most people who  participate in VANE's report improved emotion immediately after." An arrow is drawn from this block of text to another block of text: "People who experienced the greatest boost emotionally had more areas of the brain deactivated by the VANE." Research by Kerr, Siegel, and Orsini, 2019. Illustrated by Lindsay Braman.
Image Description: White background with black text. Text reads, “During these, parts of the brain SHUT DOWN. This can feel like RELEF for overactive amygdalas (panic center of our brain).” On either side of the phrase “panic center of our brain” are yellow lightening strikes. Below this text is a line that looks like stitches. Text continues: “Most people who participate in VANE’s report improved emotion immediately after.” An arrow is drawn from this block of text to another block of text: “People who experienced the greatest boost emotionally had more areas of the brain deactivated by the VANE.” Research by Kerr, Siegle, and Orsini, 2019. Illustrated by Lindsay Braman.
White background with black text. Text reads, "Drives for fight or flight are reduced during: meditation, sex, intense physical or mental exertion, and during VANES." The word "or" is written in a yellow circle and "fight or flight" is underlined. An arrow is drawn from this text to a block of text below. "Q: What is a VANE? A: Voluntary Arousing Negative Experience." A bracket is drawn by this pointing to text that reads: "like spooky movies and rollercoasters." Research by Kerr, Siegel, and Orsini, 2019. Illustrated by Lindsay Braman.
Image Description: White background with black text. Text reads, “Drives for fight or flight are reduced during: meditation, sex, intense physical or mental exertion, and during VANES.” The word “or” is written in a yellow circle and “fight or flight” is underlined. An arrow is drawn from this text to a block of text below. “Q: What is a VANE? A: Voluntary Arousing Negative Experience.” A bracket is drawn by this pointing to text that reads: “like spooky movies and rollercoasters.” Research by Kerr, Siegle, and Orsini, 2019. Illustrated by Lindsay Braman.
White background with black text. An image of a black gothic-style rod iron fence is drawn with a yellow full moon shrouded by two clouds with a bat flying next to it in the sky above the fence. Text next to this drawing reads, "VANEs might be the psychological equivalent of how we enjoy testing our body through sports." Research by Kerr, Siegel, and Orsini, 2019. Illustrated by Lindsay Braman.
White background with black text. An image of a black gothic-style rod iron fence is drawn with a yellow full moon shrouded by two clouds with a bat flying next to it in the sky above the fence. Text next to this drawing reads, “VANEs might be the psychological equivalent of how we enjoy testing our body through sports.” Research by Kerr, Siegle, and Orsini, 2019. Illustrated by Lindsay Braman.
White background with a large drawing of yellow eyes at the top of the image. Below this, text reads, "Choosing to be scared empowers because we can stop whenever we want." The word  "empowers" is written in a yellow box. Research by Kerr, Siegel, and Orsini, 2019. Illustrated by Lindsay Braman.
Image Description: White background with a large drawing of yellow eyes at the top of the image. Below this, text reads, “Choosing to be scared empowers because we can stop whenever we want.” The word “empowers” is written in a yellow box. Research by Kerr, Siegle, and Orsini, 2019. Illustrated by Lindsay Braman.

So, why do we enjoy a good scare?

It all comes down to consent. The voluntary, consentual nature of choosing a scary movie, pausing a murder podcast, or flipping a few pages ahead in our spooky novel to find out what happens gives us a sense of control and mastery. Scary content can also prove to be a bonding point with those with whom we share the scary experience, can allow overactive amygdalas (our brain’s alarm center) the chance to pause, can help deactivate the fight or flight drive, and can create a sense of empowerment.

So, the next time you pick up a good suspense novel or press play on that new podcast episode, remember: it could be doing your mind and body some good!


Source: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2018-51113-001

Black background with a drawing of a spooky looking house on top of a grey outline in the center. The house is white with yellow light coming through the windows, illuminating spooky shapes inside. There is a rod iron fence in front of the house, bats flying above the house next to a pointed spire atop the house, and a yellow full moon in  the sky. There is a yellow text block below the house that reads, "House of Mastery of Psychological Horrors."
Image Description: Black background with a drawing of a spooky looking house on top of a grey outline in the center. The house is white with yellow light coming through the windows, illuminating spooky shapes inside. There is a rod iron fence in front of the house, bats flying above the house next to a pointed spire atop the house, and a yellow full moon in the sky. There is a yellow text block below the house that reads, “House of Mastery of Psychological Horrors.”

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