What We Really Love About Haunted Houses

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Zombie movies and pandemic thrillers may never feel quite the same after COVID-19, but we'll always love a good scare, any time of the year. Whether your favorite spooky good times involve a creepy corn maze, a haunted house, or a dark room with a slasher flick, we're all seeking the same thing. Now, researchers have a better grasp on what, precisely, we're after.

Danish psychologists have just released a study on that sweet spot where we're really scared but totally having fun with it. That state of arousal — the thing that makes your pulse race and your brain suspend its disbelief — has a name: recreational fear. It's weird, evolutionarily, to derive pleasure from being scared, which is meant to keep us alive in dangerous situations. But recreational fear is much more closely related to play, even if it inspires a lot of the same physical reactions as real terror.

"We know … that curiosity is often aroused when individuals have their expectations violated to a just-right degree," said lead author Marc Malmdorf Andersen, "and several accounts of play stress the importance of just-right doses of uncertainty and surprise for explaining why play feels enjoyable."

This feels especially apropos months into the COVID pandemic, which has inspired writer Rachel Sugar to ask whether anything is even fun anymore. "It's clear that we thrive when we believe we have autonomy," psychologist Michael Rucker told Sugar. It's a lot to ponder — and if it tickles the right part of your brain, maybe even scarier than a haunted house.