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Why some people love scary movies (and how they could be good for your health)

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I am not an “adrenaline junkie.” So why am I so curious about dark and disturbing things? Maybe science can explain it.

It’s October, and I am peculiarly addicted to watching horror movies. The suspense, the sudden adrenaline and the delightful relief when it’s over and all is well again draws me in like the creepy moth in Silence of the Lambs.

I am not an “adrenaline junkie.” In fact, I’m quite happy in my safe world in front of a computer all day long. So why am I so curious about dark and disturbing things? Maybe science can explain it. Glenn Sparks, PhD, professor and associate head of the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, discovered that a person’s heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increase after watching a scary movie. This is known as the excitation transfer process.

Even after the movie ends, the physiological arousal lingers, and the positive emotions you have while watching the movie (such as having fun with friends) are intensified. People don’t like to be scared—they like having a good time. The intense physical reaction feels like a rush of excitement, and that’s what keeps people coming back for more.

More than just in movies, the Halloween spirit can be thrilling and tempting to break free from everyday life to explore dark topics. And that’s OK. Humans inherently have a need to understand the world around them, including exploring our deepest fears. According to Dr. Paul J. Patterson assistant professor of English and co-director of Medieval, Renaissance and Reformation Studies at Saint Joseph’s University, this is called morbid fascination. It’s why we slow down on the highway and feel the need to gawk at a car crash.

“The horror genre addresses our archetypal fears,” Patterson said in 2013. “You can see throughout history how each generation has defined ‘horror,’ and it turns largely on the idea of something outside of our understanding threatening us.”

Every generation has their own notion of what is scary. Recently, the obsession with zombies has exploded in film and through the television series, The Walking Dead, which can garner more than 20 million viewers per episode. In the 30s, moviegoers feared vampires. And almost 80 years ago, the War of the Worlds radio broadcast incited panic among listeners who feared Martians were invading.

So, in addition to the dose of adrenaline they provide, are scary movies actually good for your health? A blogger at Littlethings.com looked at the actual health benefits of watching scary movies (and thankfully provided cute and non-disturbing illustrations). Watching scary movies, the author points out, can actually burn calories, relieve stress and increase your release of feel-good hormones, dopamine and serotonin.

So chill out. You’ll get through that terrifying clown movie. And you may just be giving your health and happiness a boost at the same time. 

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