Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Thrill of Disaster, Thrill of Fight or Flight

kgould's picture

 Thrill of Disaster, Thrill of Fight or Flight

A professor asked me at the beginning of the year why I enjoyed horror films so much. I watch them regularly, of all different qualities and sub-genres, and I plan on writing my senior English thesis on zombie films and the human unconscious. Why would I want to watch such terrible, terrifying, and often gruesome narratives—especially when the “real” world is disturbing enough on its own?

Normal.dotm 0 0 1 1017 5802 Bryn Mawr College 48 11 7125 12.0 0 false 18 pt 18 pt 0 0 false false false

I had to think about it for a minute and my honest answer was, at the time, “I don’t really know.”


It was only after listening to the 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast and talking about it in class that I started fitting the pieces together in order to answer the question: why DO people like being scared?


War of the Worlds


In class we wondered about how so many people, approximately one million of six million listeners, thought that the War of the Worlds broadcast was real and, accordingly, panicked. We posited different scenarios for pre-existing anxieties and high tensions that would have affected reception of the broadcast: the European war scare, the unsettled economic conditions of the time, and the yet unexplored and obscure realm of outer space. Any one of those things, and many more, could have primed the public for panic and chaos.


We also had to consider the medium and mode of delivery of the broadcast. In 1938, aside from newspapers, the radio was the main source of news and information in the country. While it was also a source of entertainment, the radio broadcaster carried a certain level of authority and reliability that the listeners trusted. Unable to double check the information they were hearing and many hearing about the “invasion” by word of mouth, people had no way of knowing the truth of what was going on.


There was one more posit brought up in class, one cited from Hadley Cantril’s “The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic,” that clicked for me and the lingering question of why so many people enjoy being frightened: perhaps many of the people who were scared—maybe not as panicky as some of the extreme cases—were in it for the “thrill of disaster.”


This “thrill” for something disastrous, the desired to be scared, speaks to the very basic and primal parts of our brain. That would explain why disaster movies, horror flicks, roller coasters, and thrill-seeking behavior stay so popular and prevalent—particularly in times charged with tension and anxiety. 



Watching a horror movie engages us an emotional level that receives the images and scenarios as “real”—at least to a degree.


"The brain hasn't really adapted to the new technology [of movies]… We can tell ourselves the images on the screen are not real, but emotionally our brain reacts as if they are...our 'old brain' still governs our reactions” (8).


Scary movies engage the “survivalist” in all of us, that inner caveman, the “fight or flight” response, and it feels good.

When we see something scary, the sensory data received by our eyes and ears is transmitted to a part of the brain called the amygdala, which plays a role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions. A cascade of hormones—adrenaline, noradrenaline, and the steroid cortisol—are unleashed on the body resulting in that “rush” that you feel as you crown the top of the first hill on that roller coaster and slowly start plummeting towards the ground.

Our prefrontal cortex is able to mediate our “old brain’s” sense of danger, recognizing that the zombie shambling towards us is just an image on a screen, consciously evaluating the threat and undermining it.


As a result, consciously knowing that there is no real threat, we’re able to enjoy and ride the natural high provided to us by the sympathetic nervous system.


In addition to that rush, seeking the thrill in a broadcast like the War of the Worlds broadcast or a film like Poltergeist captivates our curiosity in the unknown, about what could exist on another planet, on whether a house is haunted by ghosts, on what could lurk under our beds, in our closets, and in the foggy recesses of our minds. 


It also provides an escape from our normal, regular lives and allows us to “make it through” a very scary and threatening situation without being in any real danger.

In anxiety-ridden eras, horror films and narratives do better in the box office and top ten book lists. This could be because they allow for a catharsis or “exorcism” of sorts, releasing pent-up anxieties and allowing us to feel like we’ve lived through a disastrous scenario, instilling some small confidence in our real ability to survive.


We like to be scared, like some of those radio listeners on that Halloween night in 1938, because of the thrill of disaster and the exciting, good feeling of being in danger.


What this all means in the end is that we, as humans, like to engage those primal, “less-refined” parts of our brain for fun, because we need to, because by simulating and experiencing an “end of the world” scenario, we can get a reprieve from the slow-paced modern era and return to the time when we actively hunted, foraged, and fought for our survival. It is how we’re built and how we’re wired. We need to feel that rush.



And, luckily, we can—in the safety of our homes, in front of a movie screen.

So that’s why I like horror movies and why I like to be scared. I’m wired that way.




















Anne Dalke's picture

On being wired this way

kgould --

Well, you've got in me a reader who does NOT like to be scared; my typical response, when invited to join friends @ a horror movie, is that "the real world is scary enough." (I don't do roller coasters, either.)

But: I get your argument, that "our" (I mean your) pleasure in horror films is a nicely modulated conversation between the unconscious, which "hasn't really adapted to the new technology," and so "rides the natural high provided to us by the sympathetic nervous system," and consciousness, which "knows that there is no real threat," and so enables us to enjoy "the thrill of disaster." Nice.

What do you predict will happen, then, in the future, as our brains adapt to "new technologies" like the movies? Will the thrills escalate? The horrors become increasingly horrifying? If we need both "escape from our normal, regular lives" and the sort of "catharsis or exorcism" once provided by hunting and fighting for survival -- but the horrifying becomes increasingly "normalized," increasingly part of those "regular lives" of ours, what then....?

Which is to say that I find a sort of "patness" to your conclusion. It's very clever, but it's too, well, conclusive. This is not so different from the way I thought you stopped, last month, just as your paper got to the interesting part: I was nudging you there to think more sophisticatedly about the role of the unconscious in citational practices -- as an unintentional borrowing, maybe, that we-cannot-but-do, as we assimilate what we read, as a process of unconscious adaptation, not dissimilar from the one you are gesturing towards here...?

You're "wired this way." So, being so wired...what's next? What's the future? Make some predictions, work w/ this idea...