Story highlights

Being scared, at least when we can control it, can be healthy, experts say

Scaring ourselves at a movie or with art can be a shared experience that grounds us in reality

CNN  — 

Haunted houses, horror films, scary novels and chilling art: Do you ever wonder why we seek out situations that terrify us?

Experts say that being scared, at least when we can control it, can be healthy.

“People like to be scared, but there is scared, and there is ‘scared,’ ” said Jeffrey Goldstein, a psychology professor and expert in violence and entertainment at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “You can be frightened in a movie or a play that is designed that way, and that can be a good kind of scared.”

But, he said, there’s a difference between real and fake fright.

Take the scary clown phenomenon that has plagued the United States and Europe. That is not a scare that people enjoy, because we don’t know the scary clowns’ motivation. “This plays with the border of what is unpleasant and threatening and may be violent,” Goldstein said.

Translation: Scary clowns on the silver screen, yes; scary clowns you encounter in the woods, no.

Why we’re drawn to horror

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going on a Stephen King binge. In fact, we were drawn to the horrific long before horror movies were invented.

The hellish art of 15th-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch and the hell beast of 14th-century painter Giotto di Bondone have been popular for decades.

Though horrifying, those paintings and frescoes have hung in places of honor in church sanctuaries. You might not think a priest being roasted alive or an ear with a knife sticking out of it would be appropriate Sunday subject matter, but at the time they were painted, those images acted as the faithful’s visual reminder of the future that awaits them if they don’t believe in the stuff in the sermon.

There’s a reason Giotto’s devil monster, who stuffs his face with a hapless human, is placed right above the entrance of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. It’s the last painterly propaganda you’d see as you left Mass.

In modern, more secular times, fewer people fear a real hell, but these paintings still draw a huge audience.

This summer, lines wrapped around museums in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, and in Madrid. People were eager to see Bosch’s hellish masterpieces, brought together in a sold-out show for the 500th anniversary of his death. But they probably didn’t go for religious reasons; instead, patrons admired the painter’s skill, or they may have been drawn to the macabre out of much deeper instinct.

Scientists say we’re hard-wired to seek out scary images.

Studies have showed that if you are shown a photo of a snake and a flower, your brain typically perceives the snake first. That instinct kept our ancestors alive. Our brains haven’t unlearned that lesson.

“That’s also why we are often tempted to peek through our fingers when we see scary things,” said Margee Kerr, a sociologist and author of “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.” “Our nervous system gives us a big physical kick.”

Even if the image is fictional, we still experience that rush of adrenaline, and our brains get flooded with dopamine, the feel-good chemical that floods your brain when taking illicit drugs or when you’re in love.

“Some people really like that natural high,” Kerr said. However, we can quickly become desensitized to these scary images. That’s why, when Kerr helps design an elaborate haunted house in Pennsylvania, she varies the scares, appealing to different senses.

Violence can ground you in reality

Viewing or reading about scary things has another advantage.

“People who consume violent and scary entertainment rarely do it alone,” Goldstein said. “Going as a group helps ground you in reality, and you can compare your reactions with others and show others that you are strong enough to take it.”

Observing audiences at horror films for years, Goldstein has seen people scream and cry and even throw up, but often, those same people will appear happy after the movie is over. They’ve also proved to themselves they can handle it.

Experts saw this play out in a study in the 1970s after a murder on a university campus in Wisconsin. Scholars wanted to see whether people who knew about violence in real life would avoid scary movies. They looked at attendance figures for two theaters near campus: One played a Disney movie, and the other played “In Cold Blood,” a movie based on Truman Capote’s book about the violent murders of four family members in Kansas.

Attendance at the Disney film stayed consistent. Attendance at the violent film went up significantly.

The results surprised researchers, Goldstein said, but didn’t really explain what drove this phenomenon. He has a theory.

“Violence in the real world doesn’t always have a satisfactory resolution. One of the appeals of violent entertainment is, you can see a story with a just resolution,” Goldstein said. “When we see justice is done, it reaffirms our belief that justice is possible.”

Even if the fiction lacks a happy ending, the movie does end, and we can escape from the horror and leave the theater, unlike in real life.

In Kerr’s studies, she has also noticed that some people have a real sense of calm and improved mood after seeing a scary movie, kind of like the calm you experience after taking a yoga class.

Avoiding haunts

Of course, not everyone has this experience, nor does everyone love a horror film or a haunted house. That’s OK too, Kerr said.

Sometimes, people feel overstimulated by fictional scares. Others may have been traumatized by them as children. That’s why Kerr suggests that you should never drag a kid through a haunted house if they don’t want to go, particularly if they’re at an age when they have trouble telling the difference between truth and fiction.

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    So, if you do want to do something fun this Halloween weekend, go ahead and pop some corn and pick out a scary movie. You can tell your friends it’s good for you, and it really can bring you some happiness this Halloween.