Scaring people is an extremely lucrative job. Stephen King has sold more than 350 million books. In the last 20 years in the US, horror films grossed more than 8 billion dollars.
THE HORROR ATTRACTION
“Of all of the strange things that humans do, watching horror films has got to be one of the strangest… It makes us feel disgust and dread and terror and anxiety and fear.” Mathias Clasen, Horror Researcher.
Horror researcher Mathias Clasen, whose research into the personality profile of horror fans proves that just over half of us (54%) tend to enjoy ‘horror media.’ He notes that humans evolved to find pleasure in situations that allow us to experience negative emotions in a safe context. Despite it rationally seeming like a strange thing to do, he concludes, “horror is pleasurable to many people because it lets us play with negative emotions and develop coping strategies.” From a youth perspective, getting a scare without the threat of any real danger, is appealing, and encourages many to seek out and consume various forms of horror entertainment:
“I like a certain kind of scary film, because it’s a scare in a safe environment - you get the thrill without the danger. For me it’s like riding a roller coaster. If I watch something too scary though it can linger in a way I don’t want, so it’s just a certain kind of film with a certain level of scare that I love.” Donna, MRA team, Thinkhouse
“I love watching horror films because it's scaring yourself in your own controlled environment.
I've also read before that people that suffer with anxiety feel better when watching scary films because it creates a different anxiety, an anxiety that isn't about themselves or what they usually worry about.” Lyndsey, Project Manager, Thinkhouse
Halloween and ‘horror’ as a concept is a novelty for fans - and novelty concepts are hugely popular. It provides a really strong aesthetic - a theme that can be harnessed in endlessly creative ways by people,on social media and in real life. . It also serves a clear functional role - escaping day to day ‘real’ fears.
THE FEAR EXPERIENCE & IRL CONNECTION
16 year old student Katie has spent the past month working in a haunted house pop-up experience as a ‘scare actor’. She has experienced first hand what draws young people to these kinds of exhibitions that people pay to scare them. She talks about how a scary experience can ironically help young people feel safe – once it’s all over:
“Almost everyday in October I have watched people walking through my room of the haunted house. Many people, though being terrified, ultimately go to experience the resolution and satisfaction of being safe at the end. It is highly amusing when friends see their friend or loved one getting a fright. Haunted houses and movies are a really good bonding experience as you see your friends and family in a vulnerable position. The experience of being scared in a way, allows you to strengthen your bond with your friends.”
Being scared brings young people together and can help form and strengthen their friendships. Within friendship groups, Katie observes, it is interesting to see how during a scary experience, different personalities reveal themselves.
“Groups huddle close to create a shield of protection from the actors (like me!) who in these circumstances are threatening and terrifying. When I try to break up the huddles of people to shepard them to the next room, I find that the majority of the time, the bravest person in the group will step first to ‘guard’ their friends. I always move to the back of the group to get the really frightened people to pick up the pace! It’s really interesting that sometimes the ‘bravest’ person in these groups gets scared once they see how their friends are reacting as it creates a more panicked and chaotic atmosphere.”
Horror entertainment is one of those genres that works best for youth when they are with their friends - as a social activity. Where people might watch a rom-com or thriller alone and still get just as much enjoyment from it as they would watching it with others, it’s more exciting when a scary movie experience is shared. When your hair stands on end and your pulse accelerates, it’s most thrilling to compare those reactions in the moment.
FROM FICTIONAL FEARS TO FACING THE REAL ONES
“I used to enjoy horror movies but the older I get the more the sense of unease that they illicit feeds into my actual mood. I used to enjoy being scared artificially. Now I dread being actually scared for real, so I don’t even enjoy the non-consequential version.” Donagh, Social & Digital Team, Thinkhouse
The things young people are really scared of varies depending on the context. Cyber security. Sharks. Death. Clowns. Guns. Spiders. Political instability. Plastic.. A survey in 2016 found that Americans were more afraid of clowns than terrorism, economic collapse and dying (and younger cohorts indexed higher on their clown fear than older ones). Katie (16) asked a group of 15-16 year olds about their fears this week and the responses included references to “heights, spiders, death, small spaces and ropes in the ocean.”
However, the important thing to note for young people who are sensitive to horror and don’t engage with scary entertainment, is that the realities they face day to day may actually be frightening enough without extremely fearful fictions added on top.
“I lived for years in a place of fear, and not wanting to be alive - just feeling like life wasn't meant for me. Now, there's so much shit going on in the world, and that really does affect me. I try not to watch the news, not because I want to ignore what's going on but because they rarely show anything positive.” Anna, 20
In our day to day work at The Youth Lab, we’re no strangers to having conversations around real youth fears. In our recent experience, two of the most recurring and serious ‘real life’ fears young people are battling with right now are the fear of failure, and fear of the future. When it comes to failure, young people are facing their fears by redefining traditional notions of success. When it comes to the future, of course, the challenge young people are talking about today is the climate crisis. They are facing these fears by stepping up and taking action. And they are not alone. The number 1 fear of businesses right now is climate change too. It’s been named by the World Economic Forum as one of the biggest risks facing the world and 60% of 100 high level execs think climate change is the main risk facing Ireland over the next 5-10 years.
While the culture around horror entertainment is an extremely social one, being ‘frightened’ isn’t all fun and games. Fears are something to be faced for a reason. Besides the occasional thrilling feeling that comes from facing them, in understanding them, we understand more about ourselves.
“Fame, power, and a fat bank account will change almost everyone” Tati Westbrook on James Charles.