Two Scientific Words Explain Fascination With Horror

'Predator inspection' serves an evolutionary purpose, according to 'Scientific American'
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 29, 2023 4:40 PM CDT
Scary Stuff Is Good for Us
Boo.   (Getty / Nastco)

Halloween season is in full swing, with people subjecting themselves to haunted houses, scary movies, and ghoulish costumes. And why? Not to take all the fun out of the festivities, but two researchers in Scientific American have two words to explain this fascination with—and even embrace of—horror: predator inspection. The principle is familiar to researchers in the animal kingdom, and it serves an evolutionary purpose, write Athena Aktipis and Coltan Scrivner. "Morbid curiosity is a powerful way for animals to gain information about the most dangerous things in their environment," they write. "It also gives them an opportunity to practice dealing with scary experiences."

Take a gazelle that encounters a cheetah in the savannah, for instance. If the gazelle had to run each time this happened, it would be "physiologically expensive." The gazelle is better off if it runs only when the cheetah is hunting, and to figure that out, it must fight the instinct to flee and observe its would-be predator to learn things. The broad principle extends to humans: When we expose ourselves to scary situations of the fictional variety, we are on some level preparing to handle real danger. "Today people inspect predators through stories and movies," write Aktipis and Scrivner. Games, too. New ones used by researchers measure "biofeedback" and reward players who stay calm under stressful scenarios. The upshot of all this: "Embrace the Halloween season with abandon—and then bring that same energy to the challenges of the times we're living in now," write the researchers. Read the full story. (Or check out other longforms.)

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