Why Do We Like Scary Stories So Much?
For every heart-breaking novel or laugh-out-loud comedy, there are stories that scare us silly. They are the ones that stay with us, or that we scare our friends with. No matter how many times we read them, they frighten us over and over again. So why do we like scary stories so much?
Each of us will have a very individual experience when reading scary stories, which is why not everyone enjoys them. Some people like stories with ghosts or ghouls, others prefer the ones that test our psychological limits. Stephen King, the writer of some of the scariest fiction, breaks them down into three categories:
“The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there...”
-- Stephen King
Ultimately, what they all have in common is that they entertain us. They allow us to feel scared without actually being in danger (for the most part - who hasn't gone to check that weird noise upstairs?). Humans have been telling scary stories since we've been telling stories. There are ghost stories in the Bible. Mary Shelley based Frankenstein on the Ancient Greek Titan Prometheus. Something about them appeals to us.
Some psychologists believe that the fact that many scary stories are similar across the world is evidence of a shared "human nature". When being hunted by predators was a real possibility, evolution made humans excellent at spotting possible threats. After all, our ancestors would have died without being able to see if a snake was going to attack. This is so pronounced that a study showed that three-year-olds are much better at spotting snakes on a screen than flowers.
Three-year-olds can recognise snakes much faster than flowers.
Bodily Response to Fear
Scary stories tap into this primal fear. During moments of terror the body releases a rush of the hormones adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine. This is called the "fight or flight" response, preparing the body to either fight the danger or run away from it. We become faster and stronger. As we grow up, many people learn to enjoy the physical sensations of fear. But, in a safe-space like scary stories, the effect wears off quickly.
This safe space is important for why scary stories work. Dr. Margee Kerr told The Atlantic magazine, "To really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we’re in a safe environment [...] Our brain is lightning-fast at processing threat. I’ve seen the process thousands of times from behind the walls in ScareHouse—someone screams and jumps and then immediately starts laughing and smiling." Reading scary stories works in the same way. We get a jolt of terror that causes our bodies to produce the "fight or flight" response, then we remember we're just reading a story.
In this way, reading scary stories also enables us to feel that we have conquered our fears. Lou Morgan, author of scary stories for children, puts it like this in The Guardian:
In reading books that frighten us, we have the choice of whether to explore our fears… or not. But if we do, we come away either knowing that the monsters can be defeated, that the forest doesn’t go on forever and that the darkness can be driven back or - at the very least - we find ourselves one step closer to the light.
-- Lou Morgan
Sometimes the best part of reading scary stories is defeating the darkness or the monster. It helps us to experience fear in a safe environment so that we know we can cope with it when really frightening things happen in our lives. Heightened senses and sweaty palms all contribute to the eventual relief we feel when the story is finished and we re-enter reality. We go away from the story knowing that we are strong enough to defeat the monster and come back to reality unscathed.
Whatever motivates you to pick up that audiobook you've been hiding in the fridge, face your fears and press play...
My Top 5 Scary Stories in the Listening Books Library:
Do you like scary stories? Let us know your favourite in the comments!
This post was written by Claire Bell.
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