Not Too Scary, Not Too Tame: Horror Experiences Need To Hit A “Sweet Spot” To Be Enjoyable

By Matthew Warren

You’re walking through a dark, dingy house. Floorboards creak and you think you hear something moving in the shadows. Suddenly, an engine revs and a blood-splattered man wearing a pig’s head lunges towards you with a chainsaw. You scream and run away. Terrifying, perhaps — but it also sounds kind of fun, right?

We generally think of fear as a negative emotion — something that signals danger and which is unpleasant to experience. Yet so many of us seek out situations that make us scared: haunted fairground rides, scary video games, and horror movies and novels. And now researchers have looked at exactly how the experience of fear is related to our enjoyment of this kind of “recreational horror”. Writing in Psychological Science, the team finds that there’s a sweet spot when it comes to creating a scary but enjoyable experience: if you end up feeling too little fear — or too much — then it’s not quite as fun.

Marc Malmdorf Anderson from Aarhus University and colleagues studied visitors to “Dystopia Haunted House”, a Danish live-action horror attraction, in which people walk through the rooms of a house and are confronted with actors playing spooky characters.

Before entering the haunted house, participants were fitted with heart rate monitors so that the researchers could look at their physiological response throughout the experience.  Once they had emerged at the other end, participants rated how scared they had been and how enjoyable they had found the haunted house overall. They also rated their fear and enjoyment for three specific locations in the house in which they had encountered a “jump scare” (zombies suddenly jumping out from a staircase, for example, or the aforementioned pig man chasing them with a chainsaw).

Overall, participants reported that the haunted house was both scary and enjoyable. And when the team looked at the link between fear and enjoyment across those three jump scare moments, they found a significant relationship. This took an inverse U shape:  the more scared people reported feeling, the greater their enjoyment — up to a point. When their fear exceeded this point (which was around 6 or so on a scale that went from 0 to 9) then their enjoyment tended to decrease again.

This suggests that for a scary experience to be at its most enjoyable, it needs to hit a “sweet spot” so that it is not too tame — but also not exceedingly scary. This makes sense when you think of recreational horror as a form of play, the authors write. We already know that other aspects of play rely on the conditions being “just right”: for example, in order to stimulate people’s curiosity, a challenge shouldn’t be so easy as to make it boring, but also not so hard or confusing that it is impossible.

The researchers also found that small-scale fluctuations in participants’ heart rate were related to feelings of enjoyment in a similar way (“small-scale” here refers to fluctuations that occurred across periods of just a few seconds, rather than longer-term changes in heart rate across the entire experience).  People whose heart rate fluctuated more moment-to-moment tended to report more enjoyment — but again, only up to a point. When these fluctuations became too great, then enjoyment began to decrease again. These results suggest that people also hit a sweet spot of physiological arousal when they’re enjoying a scary experience. 

There are lots more questions to explore — in particular, it would be interesting to know exactly why enjoyment decreases when an experience becomes too scary. Do people simply become overwhelmed? Do they stop recognising that they are in a safe, artificial environment? Or could the physical signs of intense fear be souring the experience?  

As the authors point out, it would also be interesting to know whether there’s a similar relationship between fear and enjoyment for other media like video games or movies. Still, the “naturalistic” aspect of their research is pretty cool, and is a nice example of work extending beyond the artificial environment of the lab. Not many other studies on fear can boast that they terrified participants with an actual chainsaw-wielding pig man.

Playing With Fear: A Field Study in Recreational Horror

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest