Why do we feel fear? The answer is simple, it’s meant to be a warning. In every instance where something threatens your safety, there is a fight or flight response. Our body prepares to either fight off the threat or run away. But we also experience fear when there is no immediate threat, for example with horror movies. When watching a horror movie, we know we are in no immediate danger and yet we still feel fear.
It has been ingrained in our minds to react to certain stimuli with fear so we would survive. It was taught to us before our species was evolved enough to have houses and guns, back when we were cavemen and feared poisonous snakes and animals with sharp teeth and now when we see sharp teeth we experience fear. It is so ingrained into our developmental psychology that children as young as three have an easier time spotting snakes on a computer screen than they do spotting flowers as discovered through research by Nobuo Masataka. According to respondent or classical conditioning, people can become afraid of something if it is associated with something bad, like a shock each time they encounter it. However, not every three year old has been attacked by a snake to be afraid of it. Instead they learn from their environment. In the snake situation that means the older members of the group; if a parent sees a snake and is afraid it shows the children that they should be afraid. This is so that we as a species can learn what is deadly and have a better chance of survival.
So why do we experience fear when we are watching a movie and are in no immediate danger? Well, it seems that our brains don’t understand that there is a difference between real life and what’s on the screen. Our brain sees claws, even if they aren’t real, and senses danger, sending warning signals to the rest of the body that you are in danger even when you know you’re not.
But why watch something that scares us? In a 2013 interview for IGN (formerly Imagine Games Network), Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Utrecht talked about why people watch horror movies. He said that people wouldn’t do it twice if they weren’t frightened. “You choose your entertainment because you want it to affect you” and goes on to say that people can choose how much they pay attention to in order to control what effect it has on them. Meaning that if someone wants to be afraid they can choose to watch a horror movie and pay attention so that it scares them. But if they don’t want to be afraid for longer than a moment they can pay little attention and miss all of the things that would otherwise scare them.