Monsters, Aliens and Ghosts, Oh My! (Or, the Psychology of Fear)

Social Science, Philosophy and Religion Department, Central Library,
2016 motion picture releases from fear, suspense, horror genres from 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros., Universal Pictures
20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros., Universal Pictures

Summer, along with hot temperatures and family vacations, usually brings major blockbusters. This year, there are quite a few movies that fall into the supernatural and horror genres, including Independence Day: Resurgence, Ghostbusters, The Conjuring 2, The Purge: Election Year, and Lights Out. What exactly is our fascination with aliens, ghosts, and the unknown, and why do we enjoy the sensation of being scared so much?

One theory posits that frightening films and experiences bring a type of catharsis. Many people are fascinated by the “dark side” and try to make sense of it. Horror films allow people to explore these themes within a safe context because most viewers understand that what they’re seeing on the screen is fictional. The experience of watching something scary can help purge negative emotions and relieve pent-up aggression or anxieties.&

The effects of adrenaline and dopamine are another reason why people may receive pleasure from scary movies. Dopamine is responsible for feelings of accomplishment and rewards, but it has also been linked to adverse emotions like fear and dread. When fight-or-flight responses are triggered, there is a flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, all of which culminate in feelings of relief once a frightful experience is over. The thrill of sitting through the entirety of a scary movie can provide a boost of self-esteem. Individuals can get a lot of satisfaction from being able to say that they conquered something that was threatening and enjoying the feeling that they “made it through.”

Finally, experiencing frightening and stressful situations can create stronger bonds between people. When we’re in an excited state, we release powerful hormones like oxytocin, which work to make those moments stick in our brains and help us remember the people we were with. Because humans are social and emotional beings, we look to each other in times of stress. So, rather than scattering and running into the night, fear can actually make us huddle together. Something to keep in mind when you’re looking for an activity for your next date!

For more on the psychology of fear, check out some of these books in the Social Sciences Department:

At Stake: Monsters and the Rhetoric of Fear in Public Culture by Edward J. Ingebretsen. Call number 301.55 I45

Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger by Jeff Wise. Call number 157.3 W812

Fear Itself: The Origin and Nature of the Powerful Emotion That Shapes Our Lives and Our World by Rush W. Dozier, Jr. Call number 157.3 D755

Fear: A Cultural History by Joanna Bourke. Call number 157.3 B774

Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones. Call number 370.1522 J77

The Lust for Blood: Why We Are Fascinated by Death, Murder, Horror, and Violence by Jeffrey A. Kottler. Call number 301.5 K87

Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsessions with the Hideous and the Haunting by W. Scott Poole. Call number 133.1 P822

Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors by David D. Gilmore. Call number 133.1 G488

On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears by Stephen T. Asma. Call number 133.1 A836

Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture by Elaine L. Graham. Call number 301.5 G738

Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear by Margee Kerr. Call number 157.3 K41

The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't—And Put Ourselves in Greater Danger by Daniel Gardner. Call number 157.3 G226

The Science of Monsters: The Origins of the Creatures We Love to Fear by Matt Kaplan. Call number 133.1 K165 2013

Strangers, Gods, and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness by Richard Kearney. Call number 110 K24