Fear gets a bad rap. While it’s true that this so-called negative emotion doesn’t feel good, that is the whole point: Fear tells us to get the hell out of Dodge because Dodge is a bad place. Fear evolved over millions of years to protect us from danger. So, yes, it’s a feel-bad emotion but also, and perhaps paradoxically, the engine in a whole range of pleasurable activities and behaviors that we call “recreational fear.”
Recreational fear is everywhere. From a very early age, humans love being startled by games of peekaboo and hurtled into the air (and caught). As we get older, we take great pleasure in chase play and hide-and-seek. We are drawn to scary stories about monsters, witches, and ghosts. We perform daredevil tricks on playgrounds and race our bikes and, once tall enough, queue up for roller coaster rides.
So even though Dodge may be a bad place, we still keep visiting it, at least from the safe distance of play and make-believe.
One hypothesis is that recreational fear is a form of play behavior that is widespread in the animal kingdom and ubiquitous among humans. When an organism plays, it learns important skills and develops strategies for survival. Play-fighting kittens are training to hold their own in a hostile encounter but with little risk compared with an actual threat.
Same with humans. When we play, we learn important things about the physical and social world and about our own inner world. When we engage in recreational fear activities, from peekaboo to watching horror movies, we play with fear, challenge our limits, and learn about our own physiological and psychological responses to stress. In this way, recreational fear might actually be good for us.
To investigate whether that is indeed the case and why, my colleagues and I at Aarhus University, Denmark, created the Recreational Fear Lab. In one research project led by my colleague Marc Malmdorf Andersen, we set out to investigate the experiences of guests at Dystopia Haunted House in Denmark. With surveillance cameras in the house’s scariest rooms, we saw how guests outwardly responded to such frights as a chainsaw-wielding pig-man chasing them down a dark corridor. At the same time, heart monitors strapped to participants’ chests revealed their internal physiological responses. And from questionnaires that subjects filled out after leaving the haunted house, we learned that they perceived their frightening experiences as a kind of play, supporting our notion of recreational horror as a medium for playing with fear.
We also wanted to delve more deeply into the relationship between fear and fun. You might think the relationship is linear — the more fear, the better. But when we plotted the relationship between the two, it looked like an upside-down U. In other words, when people go to a haunted attraction, they don’t want too little fear (boring), and they don’t want too much (unpleasant). They want to hit what we call the “sweet spot of fear.” That applies to just about any fear-inducing activity, which has to register as just right on our personal scare-o-meter.
So recreational fear brings pleasure. But does it also provide benefits? Yes. In several past and ongoing studies of the psychological and social effects of engagement with recreational fear, we’ve seen that it improves people’s ability to cope with stress and anxiety. For instance, one study, led by my colleague Coltan Scrivner, found that people who watch many horror movies exhibited better psychological resilience during the first COVID-19 lockdown than those who avoid scary movies. The horror hounds have presumably trained themselves to regulate their own fear by playing with it.
We know from another Dystopia Haunted House study that people actively use a range of coping strategies to regulate their fear levels in pursuit of the sweet spot, and unsurprisingly, they get better at using those strategies through practice.
What’s more, my colleagues and I have preliminary results that suggest that some people with mental health issues such as anxiety disorder and depression get relief from recreational horror. Maybe it’s about temporarily escaping anhedonia — emotional flatlining — and maybe it’s about playing with troublesome emotions in a controllable context. For fear to be fun, you need to feel not only that the level is just so but that you are in relative control of the experience.
Think of recreational fear as a kind of mental jungle gym that prepares us for the real thing, or as a fear inoculation. A small dose of play-based fear galvanizes us for the real dose that life will inevitably throw our way.
Mathias Clasen is associate professor in literature and media and director of the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University, Denmark. He is the author of “Why Horror Seduces” and “A Very Nervous Person’s Guide to Horror Movies.” Follow him on Twitter @MathiasClasen. A version of this essay was originally published by Zócalo Public Square.