The Science Of Fear: Horror Movies, Haunted Houses, And The Dark Triad

The Science Of Fear: Horror Movies, Haunted Houses, And The Dark Triad

Pumpkins, ghosts, vampires… it’s that time of year again! Halloween is enjoyed by adults and children alike – but what is it that appeals to us? And why do some people revel in it more than others?

It seems that people with certain personality characteristics are more likely to enjoy being scared – whether it’s Halloween or not. These characteristics make people more likely to enjoy horror movies, for example.

The Dark Factor

When it comes to scary movies, research has identified what is known as The Dark Factor of entertainment preferences. People who enjoy horror movies seem to have several other characteristics in common. They tend to value intensity, rebellion and edginess. They also have vivid imaginations, are quite tough-minded and willing to engage in risky behavior. As well as scary movies, they tend to like cult movies, punk rock music and heavy metal. In general, this ‘Dark Factor’ is most common in young males.

The characteristics that make up the Dark Factor also happen to be very similar to those associated with ‘sensation-seeking’ personalities.

These people tend to crave new, risky and intense experiences and, unsurprisingly, also enjoy scary movies. Research has found that when watching a scary scene, our brains are activated in areas linked to arousal and visual processing. For high sensation-seekers, this activation is weaker than in low sensation-seekers during neutral, non-threatening scenes – suggesting that they need more stimulation to reach the same levels of activation as low sensation-seekers.


Another element of personality that plays a big part in whether or not someone enjoys being scared is their level of empathy. Highly empathic people are less likely to enjoy horror and often attempt to distract themselves during scary scenes. This is because they tend to naturally put themselves in other people’s shoes, including the victims of horror films. They are less able to detach from the stories, feeling much more personally involved than someone who is less empathic and more like the movie is real.

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One final personality characteristic that influences whether a person enjoys Halloween and all things horror is their experience of what is known as ‘meta-emotion’. Some people simply gain enjoyment from strong emotions, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. This is driven by a desire for intense experiences and means that they appreciate scary experiences as much as they would appreciate a really happy or funny experience, for example.

A chance to pretend

Interestingly, the act of dressing up in costume does more for us than just giving us a bit of a laugh. In young adults in particular, dressing up and even role-playing as someone else for the night is actually a chance to try out a different identity – at a time when people are still figuring out who they really are, this is a very helpful exercise.

So, whether you’ll be out trick or treating or hiding safely at home, now you know a little about the psychology behind why Halloween is so popular!

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