Finding the sweet spot in a haunted house

Scientists have confirmed what fright fans have long known: there is just the right amount of scary.

Danish research shows that horror entertains us most effectively when it triggers a distinct physical response – measured by changes in heart rate – but is not so scary that we become overwhelmed. And the fine line between fun and an unpleasant experience can vary from person to person.

“By investigating how humans derive pleasure from fear, we find that there seems to be a ‘sweet spot’ where enjoyment is maximised,” says Marc Malmdorf Andersen from Aarhus University, lead author of a paper to appear in the journal Psychological Science.

Researchers have suspected that physiological arousal, such as a quickening pulse and a release of hormones in the brain, may in part explain why so many people like being scared, Andersen says, but no direct relationship has been established.

He and colleagues fitted 110 participants with heart-rate monitors, then followed them on closed-circuit monitors as they roamed a 50-room haunted house and reacted to what was considered an immersive and intimate live-action horror experience.

After said experience, participants evaluated their level of fright and enjoyment for each encounter.

By looking at these reports and the data from the monitors and cameras, the researchers were able to compare the fear-related and enjoyment-related elements of the attraction on subjective, behavioural, and physiological levels.

Plotting the relationship between self-reported fear and enjoyment, they discovered an inverted U-shape trend. The data showed a similar pattern for heart rate signatures, suggesting that enjoyment is related to just-right deviations from a person’s normal physiological state.

However, when fearful encounters trigger large and long-lasting deviations from this normal state, as measured by pulse rates going up and down frequently over a longer period of time, unpleasant sensations often follow.

“This is strikingly similar to what scientists have found to characterise human play,” Andersen says.

“We know, for instance, that curiosity is often aroused when individuals have their expectations violated to a just-right degree, and several accounts of play stress the importance of just-right doses of uncertainty and surprise for explaining why play feels enjoyable.”

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