I remember when I was a kid, my dad and I wrestled a lot. One of the things that I remember fondly when me and my dad wrestled was that he would yell out “helicopter!” and he would grab me by my legs and then he would swing me around.
This was very rough play and it was sure to scare the stuffing out my mom. But I had a tremendous time. In fact, when my dad would flop me down on the bed after the helicopter ride, the first words out of my mouth right after being flopped down was, “again!”
I was all of 5 years old and I kept saying “again.” And again, my dad would keep rotating me until of course he or I got tired. Those were really fond memories because my dad and I bonded in a very rough and tumble way.
That was his way of training me to control my body. I knew my breaking point. I knew the activities that were physically uncomfortable, and I was sure to tell him. I was lucky to have a dad that enabled me to explore my limits instead of treating me with kid gloves.
I know some friends who rarely played with their fathers, not because their fathers did not have the time nor because their fathers did not care. Instead, their dads were so scared of them getting hurt that they basically just didn’t engage in any kind of wrestling or rough and tumble play. These guys then grew up to be very emotionally fragile, and they tend to be very, very scared of getting hurt.
I share this with you because psychological truths play a big role in scary films. Believe it or not, just as many male kids like rough and tumble play on a psychological level, people, generally speaking, love to be scared.
I know that’s quite a claim to make, but there’s a lot of science to that. You see, a core part of our brain is the fight or flight response.
If you are walking down a trail and you see some sort of scary animal, you really have only two options. If you have a bear, for example, staring at you and ready to maul you, you really have only two alternatives in front of you.
There are only two practical options. Either you run away quickly, or you pick up a stick or start swinging your backpack and otherwise protect yourself. Those are the only two options available to you.
And the problem is, when we live in a society that doesn’t engage that survival mechanism, we become very, very fragile. It doesn’t take much to disappoint us. It doesn’t take much to frustrate us because we insulate ourselves so much from hard decisions and seemingly life or death situations that we leave ourselves very vulnerable.
How vulnerable? Well, it turns out that for certain types of people, even the slightest rejection or challenge is enough to get them to emotionally fragment and unravel like a house of cards. Talk about psychologically fragile.
And I say that not to judge those people. I say that as an objective statement of reality.
This is a serious problem because people live in a chaotic world. We live in a world that disappoints us. We live in a world that challenges us and scares us. There are just so many things that we cannot control in this world.
Now, if we were to set ourselves up for emotional and psychological failure by expecting things to pan out in Cinderella-like endings, we’re doing ourselves a big disservice. It is my theory that people, deep down inside, appreciate this fact. This is why they love scary films.
When you’re scared by movies, your flight or fight response is triggered again and again. That’s where it works from.
That’s where horror movies draw their energy from because if you did not have that part of your brain, you’re not going to go through the range of emotions that you would normally go through when watching a scary movie. It’s just not going to happen. The chemical signals would not be there.
And when people watch these scary films because they want to feel that thrill of being let go off that emotional cliff when they build up suspense and then they fall down, that speaks to their flight or fight response. This is as much psychological as it is a cultural and sociological reality.