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No Stupid Questions: Why Do People Love Horror Movies?

From No Stupid Questions:
DUCKWORTH: I know everyone says this is dumb, but I’m going to do it anyway. 
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth. DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.  DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: Why do some people love horror movies? 
DUBNER: It is so gory, it has caused audience members to pass out and vomit.
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DUBNER: Angela, we have a listener email from Skyo who writes to say, “Why are people into horror movies? I couldn’t for the life of me bring myself to watch one from start to finish.” By the way, Skyo, I am so on your side. Anyways, Skyo wants to know, “What is the psychology behind fear seeking when there exist many other ways to experience stimulation?” Angela, this is a good question. I want your answer. DUCKWORTH: I can tell you about horror movies I’ve seen. You’ve seen at least one. Right? DUBNER: Can I just give you a blanket “no”? I actually looked up on Rotten Tomatoes the 10 scariest horror movies ever. DUCKWORTH: Okay. Tell them to me. I want to hear. DUBNER: All right. We’ll see how many you’ve seen. DUCKWORTH: And then, each one — I guess each one you’re going to say you haven’t seen any of these? DUBNER: It’s a waste of breath, because I have not seen any of them. DUCKWORTH: Okay. You’re zero for 10. I’m going to do my score. DUBNER: All right, here we go. No. 1, The Exorcist. DUCKWORTH: Check. DUBNER: Hereditary. DUCKWORTH: Nope.  DUBNER: That’s from 2018. The Conjuring from 2013. DUCKWORTH: Nope.   DUBNER: The Shining. DUCKWORTH: Yes. DUBNER: Texas Chainsaw Massacre. DUCKWORTH: Nope. DUBNER: The Ring. DUCKWORTH: I did not see that. DUBNER: Halloween. DUCKWORTH: Yes.  DUBNER: Insidious. DUCKWORTH: No. DUBNER: And, let’s see, this is capital “I — T.” I can’t tell if that’s supposed to be “it,” or if it’s actually “I.T.”  DUCKWORTH: It’s It. Stephen King.  DUBNER: I mean, I think I.T. can be pretty scary. DUCKWORTH: No, this is not your system crashing. DUBNER: That, I would watch, Angela. Okay, so you’ve seen about, what, four or so? DUCKWORTH: Was that the list? Was that all? DUBNER: Yeah, that’s the list. That’s 10. DUCKWORTH: I was also going to say, like: PoltergeistCarrieSilence of the Lambs —. DUBNER: Okay. So, with a different list, you would’ve had a higher hit rate. But Skyo and I are on team “do not watch horror films.” DUCKWORTH: Okay. It’s complicated, Stephen. I just want to tell you, I’m now on your team. DUBNER: What do you mean? DUCKWORTH: I realize, listening to that list, that any of the more recent horror movies, really there’s almost zero chance that I’ve seen them, because I’m in my 50s now, and I do not watch horror movies now. I don’t think I watched them in my 40s, and I don’t think I watched them in my 30s either. So, it was really, like, a teenager, young-twenties thing. DUBNER: So, I have to say, you fit the data really, really nicely. Horror film numbers are up lately — over the past five or six years, but they’re still relatively low. So, as a share of all ticket sales —  I guess this is assuming that people actually go to theaters to watch movies. So, we may actually be dealing with a different population too, because it may be that there are people who watch a lot of horror films at home and not in theaters. But it looks as though horror films represent 10 percent of all tickets sold. Now, it could also be that only 10 percent of films made are horror films. So, that may be fairly representative. But if you look at age, it’s definitely a younger person’s game. So, it’s probably not so surprising that neither you or I are seeing any lately. DUCKWORTH: I think it’s also not surprising, because the feature of behavior called “sensation seeking,” like, “Hey, let me try that. I’ve never done that before. I know everyone says this is dumb, but I’m going to do it anyway.” That tends to peak during adolescence — late adolescence, early adulthood. You know, late teens, early twenties. DUBNER: So, that makes sense. Horror films are one example, let’s say, of sensation seeking. But what else might there be? There might be eating spicy foods. There might be jumping out of a parachute. What do you count as that? DUCKWORTH: Well, this is all what Paul Rozin, who is one of my favorite psychologists — he also is at my university, University of Pennsylvania — he calls all of these things “benign masochism.” DUBNER: Good phrase. DUCKWORTH: Isn’t that so good? DUBNER: Can I just say, as a nonacademic who’s read a lot of academic work, I am so appreciative when someone — whether it’s a psychologist, an economist, anthropologist, whatever — has come up with a phrase to describe something that makes the lay brain really get it. But I feel that there are so many brilliant people out there doing research, and they want to communicate their findings to the public — and their peers, of course — but they don’t have the ability, or maybe the desire, or maybe they don’t want to seem as though they’re trying to dress it up, or dumb it down, or something. But I find that it’s incredibly useful when there is a name.
  Listen to the full episode at No Stupid Questions.