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Brain, Emotion

The sweet spot of fear

Ella Rhodes reports from a conference hosted by the Recreational Fear Lab in Denmark exploring why so many people enjoy scaring themselves silly…

04 October 2021

Dr Mathias Clasen and Dr Marc Andersen, both Associate Professors at the Recreational Fear Lab (Aarhus University) opened the event with a quote from David Hulme, written in 1777. 'It seems an unaccountable pleasure, which the spectators of a well-written tragedy receive from sorrow, terror, anxiety and other passions which are, in themselves, disagreeable, and uneasy.'

In a survey with American people Clasen and his colleagues found that 55 per cent enjoyed horror, while 17 per cent were undecided and 28 per cent did not enjoy it. He said when people who enjoy horror predict what emotions they will feel during scary entertainment horror-lovers, compared with horror-haters, anticipate experiencing much more joy, while both groups predict similar levels of fear.

The Recreational Fear Lab has been using a unique environment to study people's experiences of being frightened for fun – carrying out experiments on visitors to a haunted house called Dystopia Entertainment. 'Visitors are asked or invited to become protagonists in a horror story that unfolds in real time in a physical environment that is full of cues of danger. Visitors… will be accosted by scare actors who get way too close to them, all their senses will be stimulated, there's scary sounds, scary sights, nasty smells… it's a very immersive very emotionally engaging experience.'   

The first study they did at the haunted house in 2016 involved 280 visitors and asked them to either attempt to maximise the fear they felt or limit it during the experience, and afterwards to share their levels of fear, satisfaction and the strategies they had used to either enhance or decrease their fear. Those in the maximise-fear group felt much higher levels of fear, while those in the minimise-fear group still felt fear but did reduce it, both groups felt equal satisfaction from the experience, Clasen said this suggests that there are different ways people derive pleasure from fearful leisure activities.  

Andersen shared the results from a later study – which explored the relationship between enjoyment and fear more closely. They, and a 'small army' of research assistants, recruited 110 visitors to the attraction and equipped them with heart-rate monitors and asked visitors about their enjoyment of the experience.

He said that there was an inverted U-shaped relationship between subjective reports of fear and subjective reports of enjoyment. 'If you ask people how much they enjoyed the attraction and how scared they were you find this sort of sweet spot of fear – if it's too scary enjoyment starts going down and if it is not scary enough then enjoyment goes down.'

Looking at the heart-rate data from this study Andersen and his colleagues found an interesting effect – people whose heart rates fluctuated to a greater degree for a longer period enjoyed the experience less than those whose heart rate only strayed slightly away from their baseline rates for shorter periods of time. Andersen said this type of effect has been seen in research on play and developmental psychology too, children and infants enjoy moderately surprising situations or slightly incongruent information.

'There are many findings like this, in peekaboo it has been documented that these just-right deviances from the adult's action pattern increases smiling and laughter… we know from other fields as well, including the cognitive science of music, that humans tend to enjoy rhythms that have these just-right deviations from the main beat, which is called syncopation.'

Assistant Professor and Philosopher of Cognition, Dr Mark Miller (Hokkaido University), has been exploring the paradox of horror – or why we enjoy experiencing difficult emotions – through the lens of predictive processing. This idea suggests that the brains and nervous systems of humans can be thought of as a prediction engine whose primary task is to learn about the environment and then use that information about how the world works to make predictions about what might happen next, and it also works to reduce discrepancies between its predictions and what actually happens.

As people's love of scary stuff shows, humans are drawn to uncertainty – as Miller pointed out people are always pushing themselves beyond predictable limits, jumping out of planes, free-climbing El Capitan, or dreaming of living on Mars for example. He said to understand this we need to understand the role of affectivity and emotion.

'Simply put… we feel good when we do better than expected at reducing our prediction error, when we get to where we expect to be faster… and when we don't we feel bad. And those feelings they play a really central role in this system, they tell us how confident we should be in the predictions we have going, in the model that we have growing, and so they alter how we select our actions.'

Miller said that if we feel good when we improve our predictive grip on the environment, and if our brains are devoted to reducing predictive errors, we may be drawn to errors which we can learn from. However, too much error means that the environment is too volatile to learn from and too little error means the environment is boring, Miller said we need a sweet spot – he and his colleagues call these situations consumable errors – or errors we are prepared to engage with that will yield high rates of learning – and scary and fun environments are ripe for creating consumable errors.

Why then do people enjoy horror films? Miller said horror films are carefully structured through narrative and cinematography to create temporary uncertainty and temporary errors, and then resolve them. He suggested that when thinking about our past and future we are trying to gain insight into how errors are created and their results – and horror films may work in the same way.

'They offer us an opportunity to do externally what we're doing internally in imagination all the time, that is to refine our predictive model. So they introduce scenarios, and more importantly they introduce agents, responding to those scenarios and we, as good predictive machines, guess what will happen next and then you update your model relative to expectations.

'[They] could be enjoyable, in part, because it provides us an opportunity to play around, offline, in a sort of imaginative mode, with what scares us and what disgusts us and so horror films allow us to bring down prediction error over our lifetimes, by potentially creating a situation where we can play out some of those scenarios and help tune our predictive model to what's possible and what's not possible.'

Master's students Lauritz Holm Petersen and Emilie Schjoldager (Aarhus university) who work in religious studies and psychology respectively, spoke to nursery and kindergarten teachers in Denmark about the ways they use recreational fear in their classrooms, why they use it, and the consequences of scaring children.   

Schjoldager said some of the most common fearful activities teachers use are games such as tag, hide and seek, singing games, stories, and using activities in nature to evoke fear. Looking at the elements that all of these activities share, Petersen said many involve repetition and a build up of expectations and tension and a climax.

In their interviews the 'sweet spot' of fear was mentioned, Schjoldager said that teachers were aware of this and ensured the fear remained fun by monitoring the children's responses, they were also very aware of when children were in the right mood to be frightened or when they needed to calm the children down. Petersen said the teachers felt that these types of activities helped to build resilience and counteract what is known in Denmark as 'curling culture' or over-protective approaches to rearing children. Teachers said this type of activity helped children to become comfortable with their emotions and develop fear-regulating strategies.

- Find much more on fear in our archive.