This column will change your life: A frightening prospect


Why is it that we enjoy being scared half to death by films and books?



One wild and windswept recent afternoon – I know it should have been late at night, but it wasn't – I finally got around to watching Paranormal Activity, the ultra-low-budget horror film that became an underground success thanks to the curious pleasure so many people take in being scared half to death. (Don't watch it twice, or you may get scared fully to death.) Even at 3.30pm, when watched alone at home, it's an extremely creepy movie, documenting the haunting of a couple whose apartment becomes the target of a vengeful force intent on driving them to the edge of sanity with some old-school ghostly techniques: doors that suddenly slam, TVs that switch themselves on, scrapings and groanings with no discernible source. At one particularly tense point, the fridge in my kitchen started to buzz; I wheeled around, saw my own reflection in some mirrored cupboard doors and nearly yelled out loud – which isn't, I should clarify, how I normally respond when looking in the mirror. In short, I enjoyed myself immensely.

But why? This mysterious truth – that so many of us seem to find fear entertaining so long as it's fictional – has bothered philosophers and psychologists for long enough that it has a name: the "horror paradox". (The more general mystery of "pleasurable negative emotions" goes back to Aristotle.) Encountering a chainsaw-wielding maniac in fiction is obviously less traumatising than meeting one at the bus stop. But why should it be actively fun? One theory is that we simply feel a rush of relief when the horror ends; another is that the emotion in question isn't really fear, just excitement; a third is that we secretly love violent mayhem, but feel able to admit it only when it's make-believe. There's an evolutionary speculation, too: that we've developed to find blood and gore hypnotising – the rubbernecking effect – so as to ensure that we carefully study potential threats to survival. But there's little research to bolster these, and none quite captures the thrilling blend of fear plus pleasure that a good scary film evokes.

One more persuasive, if partial, explanation is what the scholars Dan Ariely and Michael Norton call "conceptual consumption" – the idea that in a society where our most basic needs are easily provided for, we channel our urge to consume into the nonphysical realm: we gorge on celebrity blogs, or seek out vicarious extreme and unfamiliar experiences, through movies and books, to add to our "experiential CVs", and take pleasure in the process. But to explain the fun of fear specifically, I wonder – without much evidence, but when it comes to the horror paradox, no one has much evidence – whether we can learn something from victims of real horror. Survivors of accidents, armed robberies and the like report feeling focus and clarity in the moment itself: discursive thought, with all its associated stresses, falls away. This is the kind of "flow state" we'd look back on, in any other circumstance, as happy absorption. Of course, once thought kicks in again, there's nothing happy about their predicament. But perhaps when you're on the edge of a cinema seat, waiting to find out what's lurking behind the bedroom door, you're in a similar state of absolute, almost Zen-like focus? You are reaping the benefits of being in what seems a life-or-death situation – with the immeasurable bonus of realising, a split-second later, with delighted relief, that it isn't.

bolster : podpierać

buzz : buczenie, brzęczenie

chainsaw-wielding : dzierżący piłę mechaniczną; wield - dzierżyć; chainsaw - piła mechaniczna

discernible : dostrzegalny, zauważalny

encountering : spotkanie

evoke : wywoływać

gore : posoka

gorge on : napychać się, obżerać się

groaning : jęczenie

intent on (something) : zaabsorbowany (czymś)

mayhem : chaos, zamęt

partial : częściowy

persuasive : przekonujący

predicament : trudna sytuacja, kłopotliwe położenie

reap : zbierać (plon)

rubberneck : gapić się

scraping : skrobanie

vengeful : mściwy

vicarious : zastępczy

wheel around : szybko się obrócić

windswept : wietrzny, smagany wiatrem

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