Why Is Scaring People So Much Fun? - Pacific Standard

Why Is Scaring People So Much Fun?

There's ample research on fear, but not much on why people enjoy inducing it. It could be power, group-bonding, or "everyday sadism."
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(Photo: felinebird/Flickr)

(Photo: felinebird/Flickr)

For some children, sleepovers are bonding experiences between friends where the night’s pajama-inducing tranquility and intimacy facilitates more meaningful connections. For other children, sleepovers are dystopian nightmares spent in the residential equivalent of that hotel in the Shining. These children find their daylight friends transformed into sadists under cover of night. In a mix of partial shame and partial pride, I must admit that sleepovers with me were like the latter. I loved (and still love) to scare the devil out of people (not infrequently by convincing them the devil was already inside them).

In October of 1996, I was 11 years old and had a friend sleeping over who agreed to playing with the Ouija board. I had every intention of asking leading questions and subtly pushing it around myself to produce some bone-chilling outcome. I settled on conjuring a child spirit from the Revolutionary War period because that’s what we were studying in school. I named her “Jules” after a character on the television show Party of Five because I didn’t yet know that basically all girls in that era were actually named Elizabeth, Victoria, Margaret, Mercy, or Susan. I revealed through the Ouija board that she had been murdered by her father when he returned from the war because, for a sixth grader, I guess I had a strangely rich arsenal of knowledge about military conflict-induced rage.

“There’s a definite appeal to controlling somebody else via words, to hijacking their imaginations and producing a real psychophysiological response in other people—to moving people.”

Since you can’t just say, “Cool story, bye,” to an unsettled murdered child spirit, I asked where Jules’ spirit was and how we could help her. The most natural answer was that her spirit lived inside my friend’s Felicity American Girl Doll—whose background story is conveniently set during the Revolutionary War—and that she would reveal her true self by coming to life on Christmas Day. After the sleepover, I promptly forgot the whole ordeal and wasn’t reminded of it again until three weeks later when my friend’s mother called my parents to inquire about whether I’d been sleeping in my own bed since the sleepover—because my poor friend sure as hell hadn’t.

Seeing as I am not writing this article from prison after a grisly murder spree and I have peers who can attest to the fact that I have a functional moral compass, the story feels out of place in a childhood marked by good behavior and quality friendships. I didn’t want to hurt people, I just wanted to scare them. It was thrilling and fun and didn’t feel especially cruel, until I realized how long a terror I had caused could linger. Also, I still do it constantly. It seems that every Halloween there are articles about why people willingly let themselves get scared by watching horror movies or going to haunted houses, but there is surprisingly little research about the people who are compelled to do the scaring.

Some insights can be gleaned from the people who terrify for a living: those who write and direct horror. “I’ve always felt like what I’m afraid of is basically what the audience is afraid of so you just talk about and play with it. Oddly enough, these are very serious things in real life but in a film, you can deal with it in a way that it has a resolution in the end that you have some control over,” the late horror director Wes Craven told a reporter. In 2013, prolific horror author Stephen King told the BBC: "You can't be afraid for the characters if they are just cardboard cut-outs. What I want the audience to do is fall in love with these people and really care about them and that creates the suspense you need. Love creates horror." Both of these responses point to some impulse beyond deviousness to scare people. To have it ennobled in this way is comforting to those of us who share it, but these explanations do not account for our psychological motivations.

I reached out to Mathias Clasen, a professor of literature and media at Aarhus University who specializes in the psychological appeal and impact of horror, for better understanding. In an email, he explained the utility of the genre: “Horror stories can expand our experiential horizons using negative emotions and teach us how to cope with these feelings.” But Clasen too was interested in those who intentionally produce horror and the lack of research on this phenomenon, so he asked several horror writers why they liked to scare people. Though some were offended at the idea that there was an element of power involved, others admitted, “there’s a definite appeal to controlling somebody else via words, to hijacking their imaginations and producing a real psychophysiological response in other people—to moving people. But that’s not a causal explanation, just a displacement of analytical focus, a re-description of the phenomenon that needs explaining.”

Wondering uncomfortably if this desire to induce fear through horror was actually something subconsciously intended to harm, I contacted professor Jason Davies, a forensic psychologist who researches sadism, to see if this impulse is a manifestation of something more malevolent. Davies says that it ultimately comes down to the intent. “This could be viewed as sadism if the individual is motivated by dominance or achieving pleasure at the expense of others,” he says. “In my view this differs from self induced fear or ‘collective fear’ whereby individuals might tell one another scary stories (e.g. around the camp fire) or go to watch a scary movie together in order to experience fear and the associated relief or excitement that can go with this.” The experience with my friend and the Ouija board teeters on a fine line between seizing control of the imagination without consent and this group-bonding experience of horror. My friend had willingly participated in the game, submitting herself to the possibility of having a frightening experience, but I had not disclosed the 100 percent probability she would have one due to my elaborate pre-meditation.

Few people like to think of themselves as sadists; it seems so deviant and is associated so strongly with sexual manifestations of violence and humiliation. But Davies noted that even the phenomenon of shows like Jackass is proof that people like to witness suffering. Research published in Psychological Science makes the case for “everyday sadism,” challenging the prevailing notions that only narcissists and psychopaths experience it. And indeed, true malevolence seems to be missing from scary pranks. “When we do scare others, we usually do it to people we care about,” Clasen says, pointing out that some of the most common perpetrators of scary pranks are parents scaring their own children. They might not consciously be preparing them to survive battle with zombies and ghosts, but they’ve given them preparation for other challenges with the associated terror.

It took until the end of the school year for me to come clean and apologize for fabricating the entire story of Jules, the doll-dwelling murdered girl. Instead of being angry, my friend was relieved and grateful. She had figured that since the Felicity doll went through Christmas without incident that it was all just a creation of our own imaginations, but she said my confirmation that it was all me was helpful. I feigned maturity and knowledge as she recounted her fear again, never once revealing that the impetus for the story had been my own abject terror of Samantha, my own American Girl Doll. I kept her in a locked trunk in the back of my closet, certain there was a devil inside her that I didn’t know how to scare out.

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