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The Paradox of Painful Art

Your flashlight barely illuminates the rancid walls of the sewer you're wandering through. The stench is enough to make your stomach turn, and the realization that you may not be alone in the silent darkness makes your heart pound. Just a teen from small-town Maine, you're desperately searching for clues about the disappearance of your friend's younger brother. With every step you take, however, you fear that you will become the next headline. As you make your way through the wastewater, your flashlight casts monstrous silhouettes that seem to be following you. You think you hear one of them giggle, but that can't be possible, right? Thinking about what could be lurking in the darkness, you start breathing so quickly that you might faint. Your legs feel weak, as if they're begging you to turn back. Each step could be your last.This image depicts a clown with a clear frontal view of its brain

This image depicts a clown with a clear frontal view of its brain.

This image depicts a clown with a clear frontal view of its brain.

The 2017 remake of Stephen King’s It had millions of horror fans on the edge of their seats [1]. With its many thrills, suspenseful moments, jump scares, and perfectly placed comedic relief, the movie takes viewers on an intense ride through a horrifying story. In general, horror movies captivate audiences, hitching them along for an experience that is otherwise impossible for them to have. However, most people would agree that it’s best if we leave King’s character, Pennywise, where he belongs: in fiction. If people would be deathly afraid to experience any of the infamous horror moments, why do they continue to seek fear-inducing experiences at all? To understand this seemingly contradictory desire, one must first understand the Paradox of Painful Art [2].

The paradox is deceptively simple: if people avoid real pain, why would they want to experience art that is painful [2]? The three main assumptions of the paradox are as follows: people avoid painful experiences and pursue pleasurable ones; people have painful experiences in response to painful art, such as a horror movie; and people pursue painful art [2]. Regardless of whether you can’t get enough of horror movies or you cower every time you’re forced to watch one, anyone who has seen a well-made horror movie knows that they can be truly scary. That is, horror films induce the emotion of fear [3, 4]. Before attempting to rationalize the paradox of painful art, let’s approach fear from an evolutionary perspective.

Some emotions, whether pleasurable or painful, serve to motivate us towards an actionable response [4, 5]. Fear, in particular, prompts adaptive behaviors that save us from dangerous or threatening situations [5]. These behaviors vary, including fighting, fleeing, or freezing, depending on our circumstances. When we are exposed to a fear-eliciting stimulus—an event that changes our internal or external environment so that we perceive it as threatening—our alertness increases, and we attempt to act appropriately [5]. For example, when Ofelia runs from the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, her fear urges her to act quickly to escape him [6]. Although irrational fear is unpleasant in everyday life, fear is crucial for our survival when we are truly in danger [5].

Most people remember some point in their life when they wished that they could be fearless, but is that really a good thing? To further understand the necessity of fear, let’s turn to the case study of patient SM. SM is a middle-age American woman with Urbach-Wiethe disease, which has caused bilateral amygdala lesions, or damage to both sides of the amygdala [7]. The amygdala is a small almond-shaped structure located deep in the brain that plays an important role in regulating fear, including managing attention and storing memory of fear-inducing stimuli, recognizing fear in others, and inducing fear-related behaviors. Bilateral amygdala damage can inhibit the fear-related abilities associated with healthy amygdala function, namely the ability to detect threats and react appropriately to them. Thus, without these capabilities, SM was named the “woman with no fear.” Interestingly, SM did not experience deficits in her IQ, memory, language, perception, and basic psychological profile, suggesting that only her fear-related abilities were affected by amygdala damage [7].

Researchers studying SM attempted to induce fear through stimuli which normally induce fear in people with functioning amygdalae [7]. Specifically, their methods included exposing her to snakes and spiders in an exotic pet store, walking her through a haunted house, and having her watch clips from horror movies. At the exotic pet store, SM held and petted snakes while verbally expressing her fascination with them, even though she had reported an aversion to snakes beforehand. On a self-reported fear scale from one to ten, SM reported a mere two whilst at the pet store. At the haunted house, SM entered in a group with five unknown women whose behaviors served as controls to which SM’s behavior was compared. Without being able to experience fear, SM eagerly made her way through the haunted house, walking nonchalantly past actors in scary costumes as creepy noises played from loudspeakers. SM excitedly led the other women, who were hesitant to walk through, reporting a fear level of zero throughout her entire experience. Finally, when watching horror movies, fear-inducing stimuli had no success in scaring SM—she merely reported experiencing excitement and entertainment. Thus, with her bilateral amygdala lesions, SM was unable to experience fear induction nor consequent fear-related behavior elicited by what should have been fear-provoking stimuli [7].

Many might envy SM’s inability to experience fear in response to threatening external stimuli, but her lack of fear responses has exacerbated numerous dangerous situations. SM is a victim of domestic violence and has been held at gun and knifepoint [7]. Although she reported anger and sadness during these events, SM denied experiencing fear. Police reports and SM’s own recollection of various dangerous and traumatic events indicate that she did not exhibit any desperate or urgent behavior associated with fear. Had she been able to detect potential threats or learn how to prevent dangerous situations, SM may have been able to avoid facing such traumatic events. Unlike SM, most humans have functioning amygdalae, and therefore have the ability to appropriately detect and respond to threatening stimuli [7]. The next time your brain tells you to Get Out, perhaps you should be thankful for your ability to detect threats, and listen to it as Chris should have listened to his friend Rod in the popular 2017 Jordan Peele film [8].

We now know the benefits of fear responses, but what actually induces them? The amygdala is crucial in identifying threats, and it sounds the alarm in our brains when we perceive danger [5]. Similar to the sirens sounded during The Purge, the amygdala incites many brain areas to prepare us to react to danger [9]. After we encounter a stressful stimulus, such as a protagonist encountering Michael Myers with a knife, our amygdalae relay distress signals to the hypothalamus [10, 11]. The hypothalamus communicates with the rest of the body via the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls involuntary bodily functions [11]. Specifically, the hypothalamus uses the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to ramp up our bodies in preparation for action. The SNS begins the “fight-or-flight” response, which allows us to deal with a threat [11].

The hypothalamus is crucial in preparing us for the fight-or-flight response because it mediates processes that we don’t consciously control [11]. For example, it uses the SNS to send signals that increase respiration and heart rate. By breathing faster, we inhale more oxygen and exhale more readily the carbon dioxide produced during muscular exertion. Similarly, an increased heart rate allows our circulatory system to deliver nutrients and remove wastes more efficiently. Additionally, we automatically begin to sweat so that our bodies may release excess heat generated by muscular activity. More subtle but important functions that the hypothalamus controls include pupil dilation, which allows us to see better, and a decrease in digestive tract activity, which allows us to dedicate energy to fighting or fleeing [11].

A skull with the top half removed to reveal a brain

that is oozing out of the skull and onto a surface.

A skull with the top half removed to reveal a brain that is oozing out of the skull and onto a surface.

In addition to sending neural signals via the SNS, the hypothalamus induces the release of hormones into the circulatory system to amplify the sympathetic response in times of stress [12]. Whereas neural signals quickly propagate down neurons, hormones take longer to travel and to be cleared through the bloodstream, allowing for a gradual and sustained response. For example, the hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which stimulates the adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol, a stress hormone. Additionally, sympathetic neurons directly stimulate the adrenal glands, leading to the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline reaches its target organs, causing an increased heart rate, the release of glucose into the bloodstream, and an increased respiration rate. Thus, both neural and hormonal mechanisms help our bodies to respond quickly to imminent threat, and sustain this response until the threat is no longer present [12]. When we feel threatened, even while watching horror movies, our amygdalae signal to the hypothalamus to induce physiological changes which prepare us to act [11, 12].

We may love horror movies because they give us the intensity of life-or-death scenarios without actually presenting true danger, but how similarly do we respond to a monster on the screen versus danger in real life? In order to investigate different types of reactions to horror movies, researchers at the University of Turku in Finland studied participants while they watched scary films [4]. Before they began the experiment, the researchers first consulted online movie databases, such as Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, to compile a list of the top 100 horror movies of the past 100 years. They then used online surveys to compile a list of top movies based on scariness and quality. Using both online databases and the survey responses, the researchers chose The Conjuring 2 and Insidious as their two stimuli for their experiment [4].

Before beginning their experiment, the researchers hypothesized that there are different neural pathways that are activated during acute versus sustained fear [4]. Acute fear is when we experience a sudden threat, such as a jump scare. This type of fear enables us to rapidly detect and assess threats so that we can utilize our memories and emotions to quickly plan and enact survival decisions. Sustained fear, on the other hand, is the type of fear we experience in anticipation of a threat. The researchers defined sustained fear as the uncertainty we feel before we have actually encountered and identified the threat, similar to how we may think of anxiety. As a result, we become hyper-aware of our environment. The researchers recruited 37 participants for their study. While watching the two horror films, the participants were given a sliding scale on their screen with which they were instructed to rate their sustained fear on a scale of one to ten throughout the movie [4]. At the same time, the participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the brain, which measure changes in blood flow as a proxy for changes in brain activity [4, 13].

The fMRIs showed that acute fear elicited activity in regions of the brain that are typically important for emotion processing, threat evaluation, decision making, and enabling rapid bodily responses [4]. On the other hand, sustained anticipatory fear elicited increased activity in the regions of the brain related to auditory and visual perception. Thus, acute and sustained fear appear to rely on different brain mechanisms which allow us to be on high alert when we are unsure of where a threat is and appropriately respond when we identify it. Thus, the researchers proposed that our brains act similarly to horror films as they would to real-life danger [4]. We may now return to our paradox with an understanding of fear and the responses that it elicits to answer the question: why do people watch horror movies?

There have been many theories proposed to answer the question of why people seek out negative emotions by viewing horror movies [3]. For example, some theorists believe that people may have a cathartic desire to cleanse themselves of negative emotions through exposure to horror. Another approach, using Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, suggests that people consume horror to experience repressed emotions, such as unconscious fears or desires. However, cathartic purposes seem to be unreasonable, as horror movies can actually increase anxiety after viewing, and Freud’s theory has been critiqued and disproved for decades on the basis that his ideas were too simplistic or difficult to study. In order to propose an answer to the paradox of painful art, researchers at Penn State University in the U.S. and Aarhus University in Denmark first sought to better understand horror viewers. Specifically, they conducted a survey to gain an understanding of who horror fans are and investigated their preferences for watching horror to propose an evolutionary theory of the function of horror [3].

Firstly, the researchers recruited a sample population representative of American viewers and nonviewers of horror to gain a general understanding of how various people feel about horror movies [3]. The 1000 participants were asked questions that revealed information about their personalities and horror movie experiences, allowing the researchers to characterize the general horror movie fan. The researchers based their hypothesis on the theory of benign masochism. This theory suggests that people seek unpleasant emotions within a safe or fictional context in order to gain knowledge and experience that will assist them in truly dangerous scenarios. In other words, the researchers’ evolutionary threat-stimulation hypothesis suggests that overcoming negative emotions in a controlled environment, such as watching a horror film, allows people to gradually become more experienced with fear, and therefore have a higher chance of surviving a dangerous encounter with real-life threats [3].

A dark black silhouette with its hands pressed against the forefront of the image bleeds into a blurry, red canvas.

A dark black silhouette with its hands pressed against the forefront of the image bleeds into a blurry, red canvas.

The results of the survey and data analysis supported the researcher’s hypothesis [3]. The data suggested that male consumers tend to enjoy horror movies more, seeking out more frightening movies than females. On the other hand, females tend to prefer to watch horror movies in a social context. Regardless of sex, watching a horror film with others serves to decrease feelings of fear and anxiety, which supports the hypothesis that gradual exposure to negative emotions allows an individual to become more experienced with them, and consequently able to handle intense emotions of fear. Thus, social viewing of a horror film allows those who would otherwise be unable to watch alone to gain experience with fear in a safe environment and overcome their emotions. Those who were characterized as sensation-seeking, intellectual, and imaginative were more likely to enjoy watching horror. For these types of individuals, horror films allow them to vicariously experience danger and gradually cope with fear to learn to enjoy these fictional experiences [3].

Regardless of personality traits, sex, or age, horror consumers utilize horror films as a method of gradual exposure to fear in order to build up an ability to cope with it [3]. Whether you are the type of person that cannot fathom watching Insidious alone or the type that binges horror movies regularly, horror films allow us to experience life-threatening danger and consequent fear responses from the comfort of a movie theater or living room couch. Although we experience genuine acute and sustained fear when watching, the virtually simulated danger of horror films allows us to experience real fear responses in a safe environment, so that we may learn how to handle our own internal emotions and physiological responses [3]. Similar to how the children in It learned to cope with their deepest fears, perhaps we may learn to handle fear by watching more horror movies [1].


[1] Muschietti, A. (Director). (2017). It [Film]. New Line Cinema.

[2] Smuts, A. (2009). Art and negative affect. Philosophy Compass, 4(1), 39-55.

[3] Clasen, M., Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, J., & Johnson, J. A. (2020). Horror, personality, and threat simulation: A survey on the psychology of Scary Media. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 14(3), 213–230.

[4] Hudson, M., Seppälä, K., Putkinen, V., Sun, L., Glerean, E., Karjalainen, T., Karlsson, H. K., Hirvonen, J., & Nummenmaa, L. (2020). Dissociable neural systems for unconditioned acute and sustained fear. NeuroImage, 216, 116522.

[5] Adolphs, R. (2013). The Biology of Fear. Current Biology, 23(2).

[6] Toro, G. (Director). (2006). Pan’s Labyrinth [Film]. Telecinco Cinema.

[7] Feinstein, J. S., Adolphs, R., Damasio, A., & Tranel, D. (2011). The human amygdala and the induction and experience of fear. Current biology : CB, 21(1), 34–38.

[8] Peele, J. (Director). (2017). Get Out [Film]. Blumhouse Productions.

[9] DeMonaco, J. (Director). (2013) The Purge [Film]. Blumhouse Productions.

[10] Carpenter, J. (Director). (1978) Halloween [Film]. Compass International Pictures.

[11] Kozlowska, K., Walker, P., McLean, L., & Carrive, P. (2015). Fear and the defense cascade. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 23(4), 263–287.

[12] Roelofs, K. (2017). Freeze for action: Neurobiological mechanisms in animal and human freezing. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 372(1718), 20160206.

[13] Glover, G. H. (2011). Overview of functional magnetic resonance imaging. Neurosurgery Clinics of North America, 22(2), 133–139.

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