Culture Clips: Why Do People Want to Be Scared for Fun?

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halloween dog

For most of us, being genuinely frightened is probably something we try to avoid in the real world. But when it comes to entertainment, the opposite is often true. Many people love being scared. Especially this time of year, the time when horror movies rule the multiplexes and haunted houses pop up in seemingly every unused strip mall.

The rebooted Halloween rolls into theaters this weekend, for instance, and prognosticators think Michael Myers and Jamie Lee Curtis’s next round of bloody misadventures could scare up as much as $65 million—some 40 years after the franchise first debuted. (Halloween’s 11 movies since then are sort of like the Star Wars of the horror universe.) So what’s up with that?

Margee Kerr, an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, has spent two years studying this very question along with fellow Pittsburgh cognitive neuroscientist Greg Siegle. They’ve discovered that enduring a real-world frightfest like a haunted house produces results similar to running a 5K race: “There’s a sense of uncertainty, physical exertion, a challenge to push yourself—and eventually achievement when it’s over and done with,” Kerr writes in her theconversation.com article “Why Is It Fun to Be Frightened?

She also notes:

Fun-scary experiences could serve as an in-the-moment recalibration of what registers as stressful and even provide a kind of confidence boost. … Movies like Halloween allow people to tackle the big, existential fears we all have, like why bad things happen without reason, through the protective frame of entertainment. Choosing to do fun, scary activities may also serve as a way to practice being scared, building greater self-knowledge and resilience, similar to rough-and-tumble play. It’s an opportunity to engage with fear on your own terms, in environments where you can push your boundaries, safely.

Meanwhile, the AMC movie chain has put out a press release warning moviegoers that it won’t allow Halloween fans to wear Michael Myers signature mask at screenings of the film in its theaters. “Come come to HALLOWEEN at AMC prepared for a scary great time, and leave the mask at home!” the statement said. (Look for Plugged In’s review of Halloween tomorrow.)

Also scary? The amount people will spend on Halloween costumes for themselves and for the furry friends this year. How much you ask? Try $3.2 billion on human costumes and $480 million on getups for their pets. Toldja it was a scary number!

Still competing at the multiplex for eyeballs, dollars and (probably) awards nominations is Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s iteration of A Star Is Born. It seems the romance between their onscreen characters is resonating so deeply with some viewers that they’ve begun hoping the pair will get together in real life—never mind that Lady Gaga just announced her engagement to boyfriend Christian Carino (which came with a $400,000 engagement ring). Slate’s Ruth Graham writes:

Fans of Ladley Gooper—go with it—seem to know they’re working with thin evidence. But a dream is a dream. “I knew he was taken but I swear he is IN LOVE,” one fan tweeted. “Like the way he looks at her and talks about her he deffo loves her in some sort of way lol.” Another tweet: “also can Bradley d*vorce his wife and date Gaga cause they low key cute together.” “I ship it so hard,” said another.

It’s undeniable that the images and ideals, romances and relationships depicted on the big screen influence those who watch them. Which perhaps helps to explain why actress Keira has some movies she won’t let her three-and-half-year-old daughter watch. Namely, Cinderella, as she told Ellen DeGeneres: “Banned, because she waits around for a rich guy to rescue her.” She’s not too fond of another Disney fave either: “And this is the one that I’m quite annoyed about because I really like the film, but Little Mermaid. I mean, the songs are great, but do not give your voice up for a man. Hello.” Mouse House flicks she does approve of? Finding Dory, Moana and Frozen, all of which feature strong and independent female heroes.

Elsewhere in the realm of how images influence those who view them, the British fashion company Nasty Gal’s latest ads have been rejected by the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority for images featuring “unhealthily underweight” models.

Finally this week, social media often gets tagged for the many and multifaceted problems it perhaps creates. But every now and then, it accidentally reinforces a positive trend. Like, say, saving poetry. Specifically, Atlantic contributors Faith Hill and Karen Yuan focus on how Instagram, in particular, has played a surprising role in the rise of several contemporary poets. They write:

The limited confines of an Instagram post incentivize the bite-size lyric, the tidy aphorism, the briefly deliverable quote. Most Instagram poems advise how to live a better life—how to move on from a broken heart, how to believe in one’s self, how to pursue one’s dreams. On a platform full of idealized lifestyles in food, travel, and fashion, poetry presents yet more aspirational philosophies.

Who knew?

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous 28 days ago

While I've never been a fan of any of the Halloween movies I've seen in my life (the first one, H20, and the Rob Zombie remake), it's not because they're too bloody or disgusting for me to watch. It's that they're way too boring for most of the film, with the big payoff happening in the last 15-20 minutes of each, and by then it's too little too late.


I love a well-done horror film as much as the next guy, the Friday the 13th films are all pretty excellent in my opinion, the first Nightmare on Elm Street is a stone-cold classic, most Stephen King adaptations I've seen have been fairly excellent I think, and even Ridley Scott's Hannibal film is really well-done too. But for every good horror film we get junk like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Hostel, or Saw. Bottom line is there needs to be more quality horror fare out there, and less stupid ones like the Halloween franchise.

Anonymous 26 days ago
Although H20 was decent, I thought Zombie's was terrible. Especially the first half. I found the kid who played young Micheal pretty obnoxious.

Friday the 13th is a solid film. One of the best in the horror genre imo.

I honestly think that Saw is a really great film. Granted, the sequels were completely disgusting (James Wan even admitted this) but the original was really well done and very intense. Another one of my favorites.

There have been some pretty well thought out horror films over the past few years. Stuff like A Quiet Place, IT, Hereditary, As Above/So Below, The Blair Witch, The Strangers, The Cabin in The Woods etc... 
-Davidiswise The Clown
Skulatikus 29 days ago
Personally, I enjoy scares for three reasons:

1) The challenge. Overcoming a difficult obstacle (i.e. a creepy scene in a movie or game) is extremely satisfying and gives a great sense of achievement. Kerr is right on the money for this one. Incidentally, this is also the reason I play video games on hard difficulties.
2) Growth/strength. I find this reason similar to the first one. Conquering fear is gives a great feeling of strength and progress. Bravery, like many other traits, increases through exercise, and, as Kerr mentions, overcoming something intimidating boosts confidence.
3) Admiring the craftsmanship. As both a reader and a writer, I often look at creepy stories like Dracula (the book, not the movies,) and admire how masterfully the artists have used their craft to evoke certain feelings and pictures. At its best, admiring a good work of spookiness is like admiring an intricate sculpture or a beautiful symphony.

On the subject of Keira Knightley and her comment about The Little Mermaid: Why do feminists act like it's somehow sacrilege when a woman pursues love? Some people - including myself - desire true love and a happy, married life. To hear these people tell it, though, women aren't allowed to want that.

...And they say we're the oppressive, intolerant ones.

Additionally, I'd like to point out that (at least as I remember it) Elsa's sister in Frozen is more of a damsel in distress than either Cinderella or Ariel. Apparently that's okay, though, because a woman saves her rather than a man.

It's enough to make me start to wonder if these people just hate men. Or maybe they just feel like traditional relationships make them and their casual attitude toward sex look bad.
Miss Priss 29 days ago
As someone who loves Cinderella, I'm getting really tired of feminists tearing her down. Cinderella didn't "wait around for a rich guy to save her." First of all, Cinderella was a victim of abuse. She did the best she could with the resources at her disposal. Second, she didn't go to the ball for the express purpose of meeting or marrying the prince. They happened to meet and fall in love. Third, in the animated version, Cinderella got herself out of the locked room. This criticism coming from Keira Knightley in particular is rich seeing as how she played the damsel in distress in the first Pirates of Caribbean movie. I suppose her daughter is banned from watching most of her own movies considering the fact that they are much more harmful than any Disney movie. Furthermore, it is the parent's job to teach their children about the real world. You don't have to ban "princess movies" in order to teach a child about self-reliance and independence. 
Anonymous 29 days ago
While Cinderella isn't my favorite Disney Princess, I feel that of all the classic Disney Princesses she gets a lot of undeserved hate. Going to the ball was Cinderella's main goal in the original Disney film, not falling in love. While we all shouldn't have to like her, I think we should remember that Cinderella wasn't living in the 21st century. So her options for finding a preferable situtuation to the one with her stepfamily were limited. I feel like ScreenPrism does an excellent job of better explaining the Disney version of Cinderella in their video "Cinderella: Stop Blaming the Victim."
Rocketshipper 26 days ago
I agree totally.  I think the problem is that it seems like some people, when looking at these characters, instead of seeing them as individual unique characters, like they might people in real life, instead see them as stand-ins for groups of people and types of identity.  They want to know "what does Cinderella say about all woman", "what does Black Panther say about all black men" "what does John Mcclane say about all white men", etc. etc.  I get that it is an aspect of film analysis and criticism, to look for messages to the audience in the stories and characters, but I think its also a little damaging that we have to see every character as being an "ambassador" of their entire gender, sex, or race.  maybe in the end, what Cinderella has to say to audience is about what it's like to be Cinderella, and that's it? 
charitysplace 3 months ago
I suspect people like safe or controlled scares. It helps them cope by distracting them from real terrors with fantastical scenarios.