How to horror: Three ways to master fear

October 31, 2018

With Halloween right around the corner, fear and fright rise from the dead and creep into our daily life. From grocery shopping to party invitations and plain entertainment: horror stories and haunted houses are the talk of the town. “Scary” becomes a synonym for “fun” while “horror” dissolves into “amusement”. We can all enjoy fear, to one degree or another. Jumping out of nowhere and scaring our friends isn’t new. Yet, scaring your audience and having them love it simultaneously? That is something completely different. Staying with the festive theme of this week, I would like to share a few tips with you on how to spark pleasurable fear in your audience, to the point of them wanting to relive the horrendous feeling over again. But before I can share my insights, we need to understand why fear and pleasure are connected.

Why we enjoy being scared

Fear has a bad reputation, but it’s not all bad. First and foremost, fear is an instinctive response to a dangerous trigger. When we first detect danger, our bodies prepare for it by pumping blood faster, increasing our lung capacity, and releasing lots of hormones and adrenaline. It jump-starts systems that help us survive, such as increasing our amount of energy and strength, thanks to adrenaline, while reducing our sensitivity to pain. Simultaneously, it shuts down irrelevant systems, such as critical thinking. With this in mind, it is much easier to understand how instinctive fear transcends into pleasure. Feeling energized and pain-free, while letting go of worrisome thoughts does sound quite nice. This state of mind is similar, though not exactly equal, to our experience of an emotional high, like when we’re happy, laughing, excited, or surprised. It’s all about context.

Standing face to face with your biggest fear makes your heart race for sure.                                  

When we find ourselves in a situation where we focus on a threat, our top-of-mind goal is survival, not fun. However, when we trigger this instinctive response in a safe environment, our mind allows us to enjoy the natural high of being scared. Exactly this is the reason why visitors, who enjoy roller coasters start screaming but end up laughing in a matter of seconds. They are already experiencing the euphoric state, realize that they are safe and relabel the emotional state. Doing things that we are afraid of, also boosts our self-esteem. Even if we know that we are not in any real danger, we experience a sense of accomplishment. We know ghosts aren’t real, but the fear in our bodies does feel real. So, when we make it through the experience, the sense of accomplishment also feels real.

Anthony Perkins as the evil Norman from Hitchcock’s horror classic Psycho.

Three ways to master fear

1.  The art of suspense

It’s impossible to talk about fearful experiences without discussing Alfred Hitchcock. The works of this film director and producer can only be described as thrilling. While his works stem from an older age, we can still learn a great deal from his techniques. Hitchcock had truly mastered the art of suspense. Suspense makes our bodies boost up their ‘fight or flight’ system, without showing the real danger yet. Presenting your audience with danger out of the blue can create a shock, but the shock effect won’t last long. Hitchcock calls this the ‘Bomb Effect’, referring to the ten-second scare we are likely to experience if a bomb were to go off all of a sudden. Now imagine knowing there is a bomb nearby, waiting to go off, but you are uncertain when. The duration of the fear you experience will be significantly longer, probably up to the moment of the bomb finally exploding. That final scary moment will release the tension in your body, leaving you with a much more satisfying feeling.

François Truffaut (left) and Alfred Hitchcock (right) discussing the importance of suspense.

When adrenaline and hormones are released at a controlled pace, it allows the audience to develop intense fear while maintaining their sense of safety, as outside spectators. Mainly, the focus is not the danger itself, or the final scare, but the increasing suspense leading up to it. When you build on fear by providing bits and pieces beforehand, you have your audience enjoy the process a lot longer. In a conversation with the director François Truffaut, Hitchcock once said: “It is indispensable that the public is made perfectly aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise, there is no suspense.” If you would like to listen to Hitchcock explaining suspense himself, you can watch him here.

Seeing is believing, but tasting is something else entirely.

2.  Multi-sensory fright

You are probably all familiar with the phrase ‘show, don’t tell.’ When it comes to emotions, especially with fear, ‘showing’ doesn’t only refer to the eyes. We, as show creators, have the opportunity to create a fully immersive experience. With far more universal languages next to visual cues at our disposal, we can use multi-sensory stimulation to achieve this immersion. Music, of course, plays a huge role in the emotional setting. I have written a separate article on music alone, which can be found here. Even though music has significant importance, auditory sense isn’t the only one we can use. Think of associations that can be made with high and low temperatures. Shivers resulting from a cold environment still feel like shivers. When we engage multiple senses with a single goal, they keep the audience focused on the experience we have designed. Simultaneously, the senses amplify each other. Multi-sensory fright is a complete and immersive experience.

 3.  It’s better together

Emotions can be contagious, in both dangerous and pleasurable situations. Hence, when we see a friend laugh of happiness or scream in fear, our bodies copy the response. Seeing other people experience fear intensifies our own experience. With this in mind, in order to create the most effective and amusing danger zone, it is important to allow the fear recipients to experience the fear together. At the same time, a scary experience brings people together, forging a social bond with additional stimulation by oxytocin produced. Fearful experiences with positive outcomes will be documented just as well in your mind as the harmful ones. It will make you want to experience that exciting feeling over and over again.

Perfect balance between danger and safety is key.

Make your audience remember

Fear is a strong emotion. Therefore, experiences related to this emotion will be stored very well. Your survival instincts need to remember when to activate the ‘fight or flight’ response in case you run into the same enemy twice, of course. “You don’t want to forget what can hurt you.” While this response rarely decreases, we do tend to feel less fearful in situations we have encountered before. How come? This is not so much a getting used to the sense of fear, as it is increasing a sense of safety. The more often you experience a certain situation, you come to expect it and know that the situation will not harm you in any way. Lesser this safety zone by using surprise and unexpected outcomes and you will see an increase in fear. But be careful: if the danger zone becomes too intense, you risk losing the feeling of safety needed to actually enjoy the adrenaline. A balance in danger and safety is of utmost importance.

Fear is a widely undervalued emotion, in my opinion. It is a strong emotion, which helps us to survive, as well as experience pleasure. A seemingly negative experience can leave a long-term positive effect, making the memory all the more valuable. As designers of experiences, isn’t this something we should seek? Let’s lead our audience into the dark parts of the world. Let’s get freaked out. Let’s enjoy fear. Have a scary Halloween!

Note to reader 

As any emotion, fear is subjective. Though we all experience it, we might show it differently. If you have any related insights to keep in mind or would simply like to talk about this, don’t be afraid to contact me!