When it comes to scary movies, the "you either love them or hate them" cliché is never truer. Fans of frightful flicks savor the exhilarating experience of sitting in a pitch-black theater watching a horrific story unfold, with their mouths hanging open and eyes half covered. Horror movie haters, on the other hand, can't fathom why on earth you'd intentionally choose to put yourself in a heart-racing, cold sweat, can't-sleep-for-the-next-three nights-straight situation.
So which camp do you fall into? Here's what your scary movie philosophy says about your personality:
Your Brain on Scary Movies
The telephone rings. A young girl at home (alone, of course) answers, "Hello?" as a deep, menacing voice on the other end responds, "What's your favorite scary movie?" She plays along at first but soon realizes that this isn't a game. There's a killer on the loose. Outside of her house, and about to come inside.
This nerve-racking opening sequence of the Scream franchise, like many other iconic scary movie scenes, has the same physical effect on everyone who sees it. Your brain and body react as if you were the one answering the phone. The haunting images and sounds on screen signal the release of fight-or-flight hormones adrenaline and cortisol. As though you were running away from the masked murderer yourself, your heart rate and breathing speed up, your energy levels soar, and your senses sharpen.
The result: You literally feel more alive.
"Certain people tend to seek experiences that make them feel with all of their fibers," says Lawrence Rubin, PhD, a psychologist in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Referred to as Big T (for thrill) personalities, these types value uncertainty, novelty, and curiosity when making decisions.
At the extreme, you may find Big T personalities scaling Mount Everest, making a hobby of sky diving, or working as firefighters or war zone journalists. At the other end of the spectrum are the Small T personalities, who opt for things like stability, predictability, and reliability.
"Most people fall somewhere in the middle on the Big T continuum," says Frank Farley, PhD, former president of the American Psychological Association and a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. For them, scary movies offer a happy thrill-seeking medium. Your body has a visceral physical reaction to the onscreen thrills, but deep down, your mind knows it's just make-believe, so you experience the "high" without putting yourself in real danger.
"Willingly putting yourself in a vulnerable situation during a horror movie provides a sense of control because you know that you can get up and leave," says Dr. Rubin. When the credits finally roll, your body returns to a calmer state, relieved that you "survived."
The Best Way to Watch a Scary Movie
Sounds obvious, but go with company. "Sharing the experience with a group diffuses some of the anxiety and the fear," Rubin says. "You can hold hands, burrow your face into someone's shoulder, or you can joke about it together. It also builds camaraderie."
Even better, make it a romantic date: seeing a frightening movie with your partner is actually good for your sex life, research shows. In a classic study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found a link between anxiety-provoking situations and increased sexual arousal. So when you freak out while watching a scary movie with a date, you may be more attracted to your partner (and vice versa).
Also keep in mind that horror movies aren't for everyone. Opt for a more innocuous rom-com if you're prone to nightmares, for example. And because of possible disturbing images in horror and suspense movies, consider skipping them if you have a history of sexual or physical abuse.
Photo credit: Phil.Bray - © 2011 -The Weinstein Company
MORE FROM EVERYDAY HEALTH: