I'm haunted by something I did to my cousin when we were children.
I was less than ten years old, but pretty close to it. My aunt, a single mother, had recently uprooted her family to live near my parents during a difficult period in her life. My cousin spent many an hour and more than a few nights at my house.
Thing was, my immediate family was into entertainment that peered over into the dark side. Nothing grisly—more Gremlins than Saw—but my cousin was several years younger, had zero such predilections, and was raised by a mother more into piano lessons and nature walks than television of any sort. As the rest of us curled up on the couch to watch Poltergeist with our popcorn and good-natured squeals, she was wide-eyed and white-knuckled, and not in an enjoyable way.
This scene repeated itself many times over the year she lived down the street. In short, we tormented her by repeatedly exposing her to movies she could barely sit through and which likely gave her nightmares, during a year already full of stress and murky adult problems hovering overhead.
But we're here not to address my childhood guilt. Rather, we're here to answer a related question: What makes some of us binge-watch frightening TV shows like Penny Dreadful and mainline Stephen King while others of us can't walk the Halloween aisle at Target?
The question of why people like horror has been well-discussed, and tend to hinge on the idea that some people enjoy the rush of adrenaline in a protected atmosphere or the sharp contrast between terror and then relief.
But for every person with a season pass to ScareHouse, there are probably five who couldn't be dragged, even kicking and screaming, into a horror movie. The more interesting question is, then: what predicts which camp you find yourself in?
At the University of Cambridge, psychologist Peter Rentfrow and some co-authors performed an elegant study in which their participants reported on their preferred genres of entertainment—books, movies, music, and television shows—and also took personality tests1. The first thing Rentfrow and his team did was see how different genres clustered together. For instance, did fans of horror movies usually also like spy novels? Did sitcom fans like pop music?
The results of this analysis were seriously fascinating. People's preferences clustered into easily identified themes. One of the clusters they called "Communal"; here we find your friends who love "Modern Family," Taylor Swift, and things starring Hugh Grant—entertainment that is "lighthearted, uncomplicated, and popular." Other clusters included "Aesthetic" (poetry, blues, foreign flicks), "Thrilling" ("Breaking Bad," spy movies), and "Cerebral" (mostly non-fiction).
The bin we're most interested in, of course, is the one they labeled simply "Dark." These people like punk and heavy metal, horror, cult entertainment, and the erotic; entertainment that is "characterized by intensity, edginess, and hedonism."
So what are these Dark people like, personality wise? In contrast to those high on the Communal group, who tended to be warm, pleasant, and friendly (though not terribly creative), Dark cluster people tended to score low on measures of duty, cautiousness, and cooperation, but high on ingenuity, provocativeness, and self-disclosure. They also tended to be young, male, and educated. The authors summed up people who like horror as "defiant, reckless, and immodest."
But there is still much to be learned. For one, there are many distinctions to be made between variations of "dark" entertainment—between that which elicits terror versus horror, for one. Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts, writes of this distinction in a gorgeous piece called Vocabulary of Fear. Terror instills a sense of dread and possibility, of creeping unease, whereas horror directly confronts you with paralyzing and ghastly truths. In other words, the contrast between ghost story and gorefest.
While certainly many "dark" fans enjoy both, I myself can't get enough of the former but have been known to literally lose consciousness at the latter. Moreover, the personality measures used in this study are interesting but just one approach to how people differ. There are countless others that might contribute to predicting entertainment choices. For instance, if your life has had its share of real terrors, perhaps you're less likely to seek them out in entertainment form. Or if dark and/or otherworldly themes clash with your religious beliefs, you may similarly find dark entertainment aversive.
I personally suspect that a large part of what draws people to one flavor of entertainment versus another—Disney World versus Queen of the Night—depends to a large degree on what effect those forms of entertainment have on different personality type's emotions and sense of well-being, a possibility that has been so far relatively unexplored.
Remember my cousin? Another way that we happen to differ is in our views of the universe. Hers assumes interconnectedness and a higher purpose; mine a callous capriciousness. Perhaps her view allows her to enjoy pleasant entertainment, whereas mine requires repeated skittering over the precipice and back to reassure myself of the stability of reality.
As Victor LaValle, author of the novel The Devil In Silver, says of people's enjoyment of the morbid, "I think it's because we understand, on various levels, that existence can be tremendously difficult and downright horrifying. Literature and film and art that acknowledges this fact confirms the feeling and that confirmation alone can be a gift."
I agree with LaValle. Holding a dark mirror up to our deepest fears can be a comforting validation. Then the lights come up and we can kiss our date and laugh with our friends. Fear and relief, death and life, loss and friendship—the dramatic interplay between these threatening fictions and the comfort of reality can be a soothing gift.
But depending on our personalities and views of the world, only some of us appreciate this gift.
All in Your Head is a series that takes a scientific look at all things spooky and scary. Follow along here.
Correction: This story originally spelled Victor LaValle's last name as "Lavelle." We regret the error.
1 Goldberg's (1999) IPIP-AB5C Inventory, for those interested in the finer details.
Rentfrow, P. J., Goldberg, L. R., & Zilca, R. (2011). Listening, watching, and reading: The structure and correlates of entertainment preferences. Journal of Personality, 79(2), 223-258.