A new study in the journal Psychological Science finds that scary, but not too scary, movies entertain us the most. Creepy enough to get our hearts beating, but not scary enough to overwhelm us.
Researchers had already suggested that physiological arousal plays a role in explaining why so many people enjoy scary movies and scary attractions.
Until now, however, they had not been able to establish a direct connection between arousal and pleasure.
“Our study provides some of the first empirical evidence for the relationship between anxiety, pleasure and physical arousal in forms of recreational anxiety,” said lead author Marc Malmdorf Andersen from Aarhus University in Denmark.
“By we By examining how people derive pleasure from fear, we find that there appears to be a “sweet spot” where pleasure is maximized,” he said.
Haunted house as a living laboratory
To explore this connection, Andersen and his colleagues studied how a group of 110 participants reacted to a commercial haunted house attraction in Vejle, Denmark. The Dystopia Haunted House is “a horror maze where you go through a series of spooky rooms” (spooky video here).
The researchers fitted each participant with a heart rate monitor that recorded real-time data as they walked through the attraction. The house uses a variety of live-action scare tactics to scare guests. Zombies, for example, suddenly jump up or charge at the guests.
The researchers also observed the participants through closed-circuit monitors inside the house. This allowed them to note participants’ reactions to the most frightening items. Independent programmers then analyzed the participants’ behavior and reactions.
After the experience, participants reported how scared and happy they felt at each encounter. The researchers compared these self-reported experiences with data from heart rate monitors and surveillance cameras. This allowed them to compare the anxiety-related elements with the pleasure-related elements.
The “leisure anxiety” of scary, but not too scary, movies
“Recreational anxiety” refers to the mixed emotional experience of feeling fear and joy at the same time. We generally think of fear as an uncomfortable emotion that evolved to protect us from harm. Still, sometimes people seek out frightening experiences purely for recreational purposes.
But most previous studies of anxious responses took place in laboratory settings, which can dampen the subjects’ physiological responses.
“Conducting our study in a haunted attraction where the participants scream with fear and joy made that task easier,” Andersen said.
A “Just Right” Amount of Fear: But Not Too Scary Movies and Attractions
When examining the relationship between self-reported fear and pleasure, the researchers found an inverted U-shape Trend. This revealed an apparent “sweet spot” for anxiety where the user experiences maximum pleasure.
“When people aren’t very anxious, they don’t enjoy the attraction as much, and the same thing happens when they’re too anxious.” ‘ Anderson said. “Instead, it seems to be the case that a ‘just right’ level of anxiety is central to maximizing enjoyment.”
The data also showed a similar inverted U-shape for the heart rate signatures of the participants . This suggests that enjoyment is related to just right deviations from a person’s normal physiological state.
But when the fearful encounters trigger large and long-lasting deviations from this normal state, unpleasant sensations often follow. An example is when pulse rates rise and fall frequently over a period of time
Just the right amount of uncertainty and surprise
“This is strikingly similar to what scientists have found to characterize human play,” Andersen said. “For example, we know that curiosity is often piqued when people’s expectations are violated by just the right amount, and several match reports emphasize the importance of having just the right dose of uncertainty and surprise to explain why gaming feels enjoyable. “
Photo: by Nong Vang via Unsplash