A long-held belief in theories of human behavior is that people want to feel good and avoid feeling bad.
Nothing in that principle explains why people enjoy horror movies or, additionally, why they pay for the privilege of being scared.
Investigators generally use one of two theories to explain why people like horror movies:
1. It's excitement, not fear. People aren't actually afraid, they get a surge from the action and suspense.
2. Terror now brings euphoria later. Think you had a bad day at the office? Imagine being chased by zombies. It always feels better to know someone else is being chased by zombies.
A new study by Eduardo Andrade of the University of California - Berkeley and Joel Cohen of the University of Florida argues that both of those theories are wrong.
They say: “The assumption of people’s inability to experience positive and negative affect at the same time is incorrect.”
Yes, that means people are happy when they are unhappy. As the authors put it, “the most pleasant moments of a particular event may also be the most fearful.”
We've all known people like this in our lives. We might call them 'drama queens' or some other term but they generally either create crises in order to solve them and complain about it, or just enjoy being miserable. This goes for sheer terror as well, it seems.
“We believe that a reevaluation of the two dominant explanations for people’s willingness to consume negative' experiences (both of which assume that people can not experience negative and positive emotions simultaneously) is in order,” they say.
They sum it up by saying that the realism factor allows for a comfort level.
“When individuals who typically choose to avoid the stimuli were embedded in a protective frame of mind, such that there was sufficient psychological disengagement or detachment, they experienced positive feelings while still experiencing fearfulness.”
In other words, as long as you won't actually have your brains eaten by a zombie, it's easy to enjoy the popcorn.
Full study: Eduardo B. Andrade and Joel B. Cohen. On the Consumption of Negative Feelings, Journal of Consumer Research, August 2007.