WASHINGTON — It’s that time of year when some people sit in front of the TV, ready to scream as they watch villain Michael Myers chase Laurie Strode in the classic slasher flick “Halloween” (the 1978 original, of course). But why do people do that to themselves?
Experts say being scared — in a situation where a person can control it — can be good for you.
Jeffrey Goldstein, a psychology expert at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, told CNN, “You can be frightened in a movie or play that is designed that way, and that can be a good kind of scared.”
In other words, the film “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” is that good kind of scare, but the scary clown sightings sweeping the U.S. and the U.K. — not so much.
“This plays with the border of what is unpleasant and threatening and may be violent,” Goldstein said.
Still, scientists say that the pull of scary images — such as the shower scene from the original “Psycho” or the homemade claw-wielding villain Freddy Krueger stalking his hapless victims in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” — may have been instinctual. Studies have shown that if a person is shown a photo of a flower and a snake, the brain distinguishes the snake first. This was a good thing for our ancestors and our brains haven’t forgotten that lesson.
“Our nervous system gives us a big physical kick,” sociologist Margee Kerr, author of “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear,” also told CNN. People get a rush of adrenaline and their brains are flooded with dopamine, the same chemical that suffuses your brain when you’re in love.
“Some people really like that natural high,” Kerr said.
Goldstein added that people who enjoy scary entertainment don’t do it alone. He’s observed audiences at horror films for years and has seen people scream and cry. But when the movie is over, the same people seem to be happy.
“Going as a group helps ground you in reality, and you can compare your reactions with others and show others that you are strong enough to take it,” Goldstein explained.
There’s also the fact that you are unlikely to run into a “real” Michael Myers. When the movie is over — even though the ones Myers are in never end in a good way — people can escape their fear and just go home.