Why You Scare More Easily Than Your Friends
If you're always the one shrieking in fear during a TV rerun of 'Scream,' science could tell you why—and how to change it.
Drew Barrymore in 'Scream.' Screencap via 'Scream'
When I was 14, we went round to my mate's house and watched The Ring (Naomi Watts, lots of blueish tones, terrifying TV set), which provoked a two week long bout of insomnia. Last year I went to see The Babadook (Australian accents, very stylised, terrifying hat), which provoked a one week bout of insomnia. I've grown up, but in no way grown out of being terrified.
Why? Why am I scared of the dark, scared of being alone in my flat at night, and scared of working late in my office when there's nobody there? I also get frightened of walking down dark alleyways—not because of being attacked, but by getting eaten by vampires. Up until the age of 19, I had to sleep under the duvet with a small breathing hole, in case Dracula came through the window.
Initially, I thought there might be something in the stereotype of the fainting, swooning woman. Thankfully, we can rule that out. "There's no gender split—it's just about how the fear is expressed," explains Dr. Abigael San, a chartered psychologist. "It's a lot more socially acceptable for women to express anxiety, than for men to. Women are more comfortable chatting about it, whereas men might be more likely to turn it into anger, for example."
This is backed up by studies showing that physiological responses to fear are the same in men and women, but women are more likely to yell when there's a spider or watch The Grudge behind a pillow. We emote more, which is why some studies have concluded that we get more scared than men during horror movies—but while we appear more frightened, there's no proven physiological difference between men and women and how we deal with fear.
Humans have been obsessed with gore and torture for years—from gladiators in amphitheatres to public hangings, there's something in our nature that draws us to horror. Unfortunately, the reasons why some people are more drawn to sheer terror aren't straightforward. The few theories that do exist posit that it comes down to a mix of behavioural factors and environmental ones.
For example, sensation seekers are more likely to enjoy a good scare, rather than pee themselves. According to the Sensation Seeking Scale, a psychological instrument used to measure thrill-seeking behavior, there are four aspects to being an adrenaline junkie: Thrill and adventure seeking, experience seeking, disinhibition, and susceptibility to boredom. Professor Glenn Sparks, the associate head of the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, found that those who score high on this scale are more likely to enjoying a horror film without shitting themselves in fear. It works in an opposite manner too; if you like to play it safe, you probably won't watch Saw.
If someone is naturally more sensitive, and they watch a lot of horror films, they're going to overthink during stressful situations and conjure up scarier images.
If you're easily frightened, then you're more likely to have an overactive imagination that could make your nervousness worse. "Anxiety is the response to the fear. If someone is naturally more sensitive, and they watch a lot of horror films, they're going to overthink during stressful situations and conjure up scarier images," Dr San says. "Your thoughts can play tricks on you, and your mind is not always your friend. It's important that you treat your thoughts like mental events rather than giving them too much weight."
So don't unnecessarily feed your imagination with horror films if you're likely to recreate them in your brain late at night—but don't forgo them altogether, because that could make them a much bigger deal. "If you push [things that scare you] away and deny it, then whatever you're frightened of will become bigger in your mind. Don't avoid things you're scared of, but take it in small steps," advises Dr San.
Being actively drawn to horror, rather than having to watch it to train yourself not to pee, could also be a symptom of wider issues. According to communication professor Ron Tamborini, psychotherapists have attempted to link an enjoyment of horror films to the subconscious and "the film's ability to provide psychic relief from internal conflicts by allowing the displacement of anxieties onto story materials."
So if you truly relish the fear, then maybe you've got stuff going on up there that you need to distract yourself from. Makes a sort of sense, doesn't it? Although I would say that, being someone who once genuinely cried at Suspiria out of sheer fright and wants to appear totally mentally balanced.
It's not all down to you, either—the environmental influence of your parents or childhood caretakers can affect your reaction to fear. "It's a lot to do with your experience growing up, and the people who raised you—people either copy behaviours they see, or react against them," says Dr San. "If a parent was anxious, then you'll either be anxious or go the other way. If you have caregivers who manage your anxiety when you're small, so you learn that it's okay to be anxious [and] you'll grow up able to soothe yourself."
Some of us are afraid of attics—although we know perfectly well there's nothing dangerous up there.
It could also be down to context. According to Professor Sparks, we react with fright at things we associate with prior memories and attachments. "'Some of us are afraid of attics—although we know perfectly well there's nothing dangerous up there," he concludes in one study on fear and horror films. "Others are scared of bats, others of spiders, others of skeletons—again, with little rational basis for fear of imminent danger. Simply hearing about these objects may lead to the experience of emotions connected to the objects in a prior real-life or media-generated event."
In fact, telling yourself that it's only a film actually doesn't help. "The conscious awareness that 'the thing won't hurt you' in the present instance,"Professor Sparks adds, "is not enough to eradicate fear, and understanding that fact could go a long way in helping both adults and children deal with these fears."
Essentially, there isn't a clear answer because there aren't enough comprehensive studies done on why some people freak out during The Shining and some don't. But thankfully, it's not to do with gender and it's also something you can change—or at least, begin to address. If you find that you're unable to go and watch The Babadook without sacrificing weeks of sleep, Dr San says to focus on the physical aspects, rather than allowing your mind to run away with you. "It's important to recognise that this is a normal emotional response. You'll have a surge of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol—the stress hormones—and you can't ignore it. It will fade, it will pass, and you will feel normal again."
While repeatedly doing the one thing you're scared of sounds batshit, it's another good way to battle the fear. "Wait for the anxiety to drop—because it will—and when you feel ready, move onto something more scary," Dr San advises. "Keep repeating that."
Better dig out my old DVD of The Ring, then.