Yesterday I watched consecutive episodes of daredevils performing their death-defying stunts and I pondered as to what motivated these performers to challenge death with such aggression. I deduced that the thrill has to be in the high they get from the emotion of fear. I proceeded to surf the net and found some interesting studies done by others who apparentlly entertained the same query as I did. After reading this, tell me if you agree or disagree with the "fear" theory. The researchers quoted here were studying movie-goers of horror flicks, but there is a parallel between the two...that being the stimulation derived from the fear.
What constitutes a good scare basically boils down to themes of the supernatural, psychological, or biological that are developed against a backdrop of increasing tension. Horror films allow you to tackle upsetting issues from the safe distance of allegory. This permits a safe confrontation of real fears disguised in conquerable, metaphorical form.
Do some people get an endorphin high from being scared? Researchers such as Bessel A. Van Der Kolk, MD and Matthew J. Friedman, MD, hold that the typical physical reaction to arousing movies results in the release of opiate endorphins. Van Der Kolk, clinical director of the HRI Trauma Center and professor of psychiatry at Boston University, has written that addiction to trauma (such as in viewing frightening films) is tied up in biology. That is, the films rev up the body's sympathetic nervous system. Friedman calls this "stress-induced analgesia"—a state of painlessness brought on by stress.
Some researchers theorize that individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder(PTSD) may become conditioned by the analgesic effect of certain types of movies and seek out stressful films to release more endorphins. Friedman quotes a study by Pitman and associates who found that when Vietnam veterans with PTSD were shown combat scenes from the movie Platoon, they experienced a temporary, reversible numbing sensation—much like the effect of opium. This suggests that perhaps people with PTSD have an opioid deficiency that might be relieved by the type of traumatic stimuli produced by horror or war movies.
Other researchers disagree.
"I am not particularly convinced of the 'addiction to trauma' hypothesis," says Mary R. Harvey, PhD, director of the Cambridge Hospital Victims of Violence Program and assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. "Folks watch horror movies and violent scary films for all kinds of reasons. Among those who may show a particular preference for these types of films are combat veterans and other individuals who have experienced psychological trauma."
Harvey notes that some films that elicit fear or even terror in most viewers have an almost hypnotic effect on trauma survivors.
"Combat movies, like Platoon, for example, seem to hold a particular fascination and attraction for many Vietnam veterans," she points out, "perhaps because the films invite a reliving of the experience. Perhaps exposure to things that keep them scared also help them maintain a needed state of hypervigilance, and perhaps because each new exposure feels like an opportunity to revisit and possibly redo or undo the traumatic response," says Harvey.
Harvey continues, "Within this context, a number of trauma researchers and clinicians have noticed that at least some trauma survivors—combat veterans, survivors of political trauma, survivors of early and/or chronic sexual and physical abuse or domestic violence—exhibit a kind of fascination with or attachment to films that seem to invite a reliving of the original traumatic exposure."
Harvey maintains that it is not yet clear whether it is the opiate/endorphin response or the need for traumatized people to rework their original trauma—or both—that explains why a subset of people who have PTSD seek out scary entertainment. For that matter, there are many PTSD sufferers who carefully read movie reviews to avoid any subject matter that could trigger painful memories.
Perhaps we're all just looking for the same thing—a periodic jolt to the nervous system and a roundabout peek at our innermost fears, all within the comfort of a secure environment. After all, "it's fun to be a little scared, particularly if it's safe," says Zuckerman.
The Horror Webpage. Available at: http://www.drcasey.com/index.shtml.
Horror Writers' Association