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Scaring ourselves healthy

Interview: Conor DillonOctober 30, 2014

On Halloween, millions watch horror movies and try to terrorize themselves and anyone close by. Horror expert Mathias Clasen tells DW horror is good for us - and offers tips on scaring people silly.

A scared woman hides beneath a table
Image: Fotolia/Klaus-Peter Adler

DW: We're all aware of how horror films can affect us, but you argue that we benefit from them as well?

Mathias Clasen: The attraction people feel to situations that give them experience with danger - but in a safe context - is biologically adaptive. And I base that hypothesis on comparative studies done on other mammals.

Which mammals, and what are they doing?

Primarily, mammalian infants. They're apparently hardwired to find great pleasure in situations that would be dangerous in real life. So when kittens play-fight, they build muscle tone, they develop evasion strategies. And there are parallels with human children: kids love being chased, or peek-a-boo, or hide and seek. Those are basically simulations of very dangerous scenarios, but which clearly exhibit cues so the kids can enjoy flirting with danger and with their own responses to danger.

And horror films provide the same for adults?

A cheap but effective horror film will give us nothing but an ephemeral buzz, a little jolt to the central nervous system - increased heart beats, pupil dilation, sweaty palms - perhaps a pleasant feeling that we're alive. But really good horror films can give us more than that. It's all about a vicarious experience with negative emotions and high levels of intensity.

So when I watch a Friday the 13th movie, I'm in fact preparing myself for a really bad camping trip?

It's almost a narrative cliché of slasher films that the characters, who are too busy having sex or partying, aren't sufficiently aware of potential dangers in their environment. And they almost always end up getting slashed by the maniac in the hockey or clown mask.

So we might build coping skills by exposing ourselves to simulated danger, so that we learn how to cope with negative emotions, and/or observe how fictional characters cope with negative emotions.

Let's say I buy your argument, and I want to "train" myself through horror. Which of the following three characters should I incorporate into my program: Dracula, zombies, or the witch we never see in The Blair Witch Project?

Zombies are interesting. In 2011, some joker at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta came up with the idea of making a zombie apocalypse joke as part of its annual hurricane awareness campaign. Usually nobody visits the CDC's hurricane site - they get something like 3-4,000 unique hits. That zombie tagline, "If you're ready for a zombie apocalypse, you're ready for any emergency," attracted millions of visitors and caused the CDC server system to crash. People were paying attention.

Mathias Clasen, horror media expert
Clasen: People are natural-born scaredypantsImage: Aarhus University Communications Department

Watch the Walking Dead [an American zombie television series]. That will tell you about ways in which to prepare for a much more primitive and dangerous existence - which could be the result of the zombie apocalypse but also the result of a natural disaster. And it would tell you about social dynamics. That's a theme in lots of these films, especially the apocalyptic ones. When people are faced with danger, the danger comes not so much from the monsters in those fictional stories, but from other people. And that's probably a good thing to know when you're faced with an emergency. Be aware of other humans, and what they're capable of.

And vampires and witches?

Vampire films have more to do with gender-specific mating strategies, at least the Twilight kind that's popular these days. That's more or less a modern version of Jane Austen - a fanged, blood-spattered Jane Austen.

The Blair Witch project focused on the deterioration of social dynamics, the deterioration of trust. That film is emotionally saturated, and it gives concrete images of very abstract fears - fears of being preyed upon in a hostile environment. It allows us to cognitively model danger. I think it's more than just a jolt or a buzz.

This also applies to video games?

Horror video games are structured from a first-person perspective - they literally put you in the scary surrounding and expose you to scary stimuli. So it's the latest development in this trend of increasing immersion and absorption in a hostile environment.

You're also a scientific advisor to a haunted house?

We only have about five of them in Denmark, so I've been engaged in dialogue, telling them about scare tactics.

And what's the best way to scare someone?

Have a clear narrative. That would be the highest level. Haunted houses have a bunch of rooms - that's very typical. If you want to really sustain the illusion that there is a coherent fictional world there, and allow visitors to live in the illusion they're actually participating in this world, you need to have a thread that runs through it.

Also, turn off the lights. When people are in dark surroundings, they react far more to sudden, unexpected stimuli.

Finally, the things we fear are things that have been dangerous to us over geological time: spiders, snakes, the dark, heights, confined spaces and so on. So I said to them, use those non-randomly distributed fear objects: Use spiders, use the dark.

Mathias Clasen is an assistant professor of English literature at Aarhus University in Denmark. His area of expertise and research is scary entertainment and the psychological underpinnings of scary media.