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Thrill-Seekers Thrive on the Scary

Exploring the 'dark side' may be a psychological need that's met when the scare is actually over.

By Richard Trubo
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Virtually everyone knows what it's like to feel really scared: A pounding heartbeat. Faster breathing. Nervous perspiration. Butterflies in the stomach.

But whether that fright is caused by watching a nail-biting horror movie, listening to a spine-chilling story, or prowling through a dark-as-night haunted house on Halloween, some people actually revel in feeling frightened. They thrive on the latest Friday the 13th movie or Stephen King novel. They relish roller coasters, perhaps even sky diving. They crave having the bejesus scared right out of them.

Of course, for the mere mortals among us who feel that we're liable to lose our lunch after just a glimpse of a slasher movie, it may seem unimaginable that others actually enjoy panic-button experiences. But experts believe that it's not uncommon for individuals to push the envelope, seeing how much fear they can tolerate, and ultimately feeling a sense of satisfaction when they're able to endure the anxiety.

Exploring the Dark Side

What's the appeal of the fright associated with creepy stories? "There's a long history of people being intensely curious about the 'dark side,' and trying to make sense of it," says Frank Farley, PhD, psychologist at Temple University. "Through movies, we're able to see horror in front of our eyes, and some people are extremely fascinated by it. They're interested in the unusual and the bizarre because they don't understand it and it's so different from our everyday lives."

For more than two decades, Glenn Sparks, PhD, has studied the way men, women, and children respond to terrifying images in the media. "Some people have a need to expose themselves to sensations that are different from the routine," he says. "While experiencing a frightening movie may have some negatives, individuals often derive gratification because the experience is different."

Several studies have shown that males like scary films much more than females do. "It's not that they truly enjoy being scared," says Sparks, professor of communication at Purdue University. "But they get great satisfaction being able to say that they conquered and mastered something that was threatening. They enjoy the feeling that they 'made it through.'"

Quite commonly, at the end of the terrifying movie, an individual may walk out of the theater with a profound sense of relief, adds Sparks. "He may just be happy that the film is over."

"Type T's"

Farley, former president of the American Psychological Association, has studied people who have what he calls "type T" (thrill-seeking) personalities. These men and women thrive on the uncertainty and the intensity associated with activities that most people consider to be hair-raising -- from riding roller coasters to bungee jumping. "Sky divers will tell you it's the thrill, the rush, and a little element of fear that motivates them to push themselves to the extreme," he says.

According to Farley, some people enjoy the physical sensations that can accompany being scared -- from the adrenaline rush to the racing heart to the perspiring palms. In his studies of people who thrive on riding roller coasters, "there's almost nothing else, including sex, that can match it in terms of the incredible sensory experience that the body is put through."

As for children, an event like Halloween can provide an enjoyable and safe way to explore and experience fear, knowing that the goblins and witches stalking their neighborhood are only make-believe. Leon Rappoport, PhD, describes Halloween as something akin to an exorcism, allowing children to work through and release pent-up emotions and anxieties.

"They're being given the license to probe at least the superficial anxieties about magical transformations, which, in the imagination of a child, are not completely foreign," says Rappoport, professor of psychology at Kansas State University. "The experience provides a sort of relief in much the way that an exorcism could be said to do."

The Scariest Films

In recent years, if you're someone who savors the heart-in-your-mouth images of frightening movies, you've certainly had plenty to keep you entertained. In 1998, Sparks conducted a survey to determine which films people regard as the scariest they've ever seen. These so-called "Seven Deadly Films" are Scream, Friday the 13th, The Shining, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist, and Poltergeist.

Of course, some people would prefer to completely avoid those or any other scary flicks -- about one-third of the population falls into this category, says Sparks. For them, there's no redeeming value to stories that leave them frozen with fear.

Sparks describes a woman in her late thirties who saw Silence of the Lambs, and found the film so terrifying that she didn't eat meat for the next six months. When The Exorcist was initially released three decades ago, there were several cases of adults who experienced such high levels of distress that they needed to be hospitalized.

Yet for adolescent boys in particular, they may consider these kinds of films to be a rite of passage, exposing themselves to images and stories that were taboo when they were younger.

"Most of these films depict transgressions of conventional values and morality," says Rappoport. "There's an attraction to their 'forbidden' nature, in the same way that many adolescents want to know what it's like to drink too many beers, smoke cigarettes, or drive their car too fast."

The Ultimate Fear Experience

For people who just aren't satisfied with the run-of-the-mill terrifying movies or the everyday shaking-in-your boots novels, New Yorkers can now take the fear factor to the next level. The prescription: Order your own "designer kidnapping."

For a rather hefty price tag (ranging from $1,500 to $4,000), a newly formed business in New York will arrange to have you abducted, tied up, gagged, and kept confined for hours or days to instill as much fear in you as possible. The specific twists and turns of your own kidnapping can be customized depending on your own preferences and idiosyncrasies for personal terror.

As of late October (2002), about three dozen people had paid for the thrill of being grabbed at a bus stop or the shopping mall, or even from their own bedroom, thrown into the back seat of a car, blindfolded, driven to a warehouse, stripped down to their underwear, and slapped around a little. It's everything a masochist could ever want.

"This company apparently conducts a 'pre-interview,' finds out what your fears are, and then plays into them," says Farley. "I view this as a very decadent indulgence. It's violent and very scary, but people do it voluntarily."

And a designer-kidnapping business may be coming to a town near you. The young artist-turned-entrepreneur who started this enterprise is contemplating opening up similar dare-to-be-scared operations in other parts of the country.

Published Oct. 28, 2002.

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