Why We Like Scary Stories

May 31, 2017

There’s no doubt about the fact that people really like scary stories. There is some speculation that the very first stories that were ever told around the campfire were ghost stories or variations of them. We haven’t always grouped all scary stories together in one genre before, but we obviously like stories that make us scared.

All cultures have scary stories. Individual people might vary in terms of their appreciation for scary stories, but there have been few communities where people just completely avoided scary stories altogether. Even in cultures were almost all stories were suppressed for ideological reasons, people clearly still liked them and they still liked to be scared.

However, the nearly universal love of scary stories might seem to be somewhat counter-intuitive. After all, fear is an unpleasant emotion. It’s true that the scary stories are not actually real. However, if the only real comfort is that the stories aren’t real, so what is their appeal? People might wonder why anyone would even bother going through the process of feeling scared in the first place if glib reassurance is your only reward.

When it comes to understanding why people like scary stories, people need only look at the complexities of human emotion. People like to experience powerful emotions in general. When people listen to scary stories, they get to experience the sheer thrill of being in those situations, since people will tend to project themselves into the stories. However, since these are just stories, people will not have to actually experience the consequences of anything going on in the stories.

Most events that cause fear in real life do indeed have terrifying consequences. When people find out that they don’t, it comes as a relief. However, it’s different in the case of stories. People get to just get the spike in adrenaline, which is not dangerous thanks to the actual circumstances. Adrenaline spikes are fun when people get them on the roller coaster, but they’re terrifying if they happen when people lose control of their vehicles. Similarly, events that would be terrifying in real life are entertaining in the form of stories.

Scary stories can have other benefits beyond the sheer visceral experience of fear. They form a contrast to the real world. When people create stories that are more terrifying than their own lives, there’s a sort of comfort in returning to the real world. It makes the real world seem less imposing than it would be otherwise. There’s a strange sort of comfort in creating scary stories based on the contrast between people’s worst nightmares and their realities.

There is also the fact that a lot of people just find horrifying situations fascinating on some intrinsic level. A lot of people are just curious about that which is dark and macabre. They obviously wouldn’t want to get close to it in real life, since it would be dangerous. However, experiencing it in the form of fiction is completely different.

Fear is a valid emotion to explore in fiction. Fiction doesn’t have to be entirely sunny all the time. A lot of people feel that exploring fear adds a touch of realism in general, and this can improve the experience of the reader or the listener. Scary stories have a lot of different functions, and they should endure forever.