What is it that makes people want to read stories that are designed to make us afraid? Why do tales of ghosts, witches, monsters and the paranormal appeal to us, even though we know before we open the book’s pages that we’ll be sleeping with the lights on? What is it that makes the idea of murderers chasing us with axes, or having to survive a zombie apocalypse, that appeals – especially as the majority of us read just before we try and go to sleep?
Mankind has been telling stories featuring spirits from beyond the grave since even before the time of the first written word. Psychologists agree that both listening to and reading horror stories produce an adrenaline rush. Scary stories get our blood pumping and our hearts pounding, increasing our breathing and sending our bodies into fight or flight mode. The fear factor of a story can immerse the reader in the need to find out what will happen next. We physically need to discover if, on the next page, everything is going to be alright. Due to a hormone called dopamine, which your body releases when stressed or anxious, reading scary stories can give you a natural high. Dopamine regulates mood, emotions, and controls our senses when we’re experiencing something that terrifies us.
One of the biggest appeals of scary literature is the escapism the genre provides from reality. Horror stories can take you to the edge of your emotional limits. Feelings of fear, anger, frustration, terror, empathy, and shocked surprise, can take you away from your daily life. It can be a great release from tension- and of course, we always have the underlying knowledge that we are safe and can put the book down whenever we want to.
Whether it’s it Dracula, The Shining, The Woman in Black, or any other paranormal or horror tale, if a story scared the life out of you but you still managed to read it, then you’ll probably have experienced a sense of achievement. You may even be ready to repeat that hauntingly uncomfortable yet rewarding experience of reading horror again the second you finish your book, as the adrenaline experienced as you read horror is often addictive.
Maybe you should open the cover of a new tale of terror on this Halloween…
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.