The evolutionary reasons why we are drawn to horror movies and haunted houses
Scary play allows people – and other animals – to practice coping skills for upsetting challenges in the real world. Scientific American: Our desire to experience fear appears to be rooted in our evolutionary past and is still useful to us today. It turns out that scary play can help us overcome fears and face new challenges—both those that surface in our lives and others that arise in the increasingly disturbing world in which we all live. The phenomenon of scary play surprised Charles Darwin. In his book The Descent of Man, he wrote that he had heard of captive apes who, despite their fear of snakes, continued to lift the lid of a box containing the reptiles to peek inside. Intrigued, Darwin turned the story into an experiment: he placed a bag with a snake inside in a cage full of monkeys at the London Zoo. The monkey carefully walked over to the bag, slowly opened it, and looked inside before screaming and running away. After seeing one monkey do this, another monkey would cautiously walk towards the bag to peek, then scream and run away. Then another does the same thing, and then another.
The apes were “satisfied with terror,” as Darwin put it. Pathological fascination with danger is widespread in the animal kingdom – this is called predator hunting. Searching occurs when an animal looks at or even approaches a predator rather than simply running away. This behavior occurs across a range of animals, from guppies to deer. At first glance, getting close to danger seems like a bad idea. Why does natural selection instill in animals curiosity about the very things they should avoid? But there is an evolutionary logic to these actions. Pathological curiosity is a powerful way for animals to obtain information about the most dangerous things in their environment. It also gives them a chance to practice dealing with scary experiences.
When you consider that many predators live in close proximity to predators, the benefits of pathological antics such as predator checking become clear. For example, it is not uncommon for a gazelle to meet a cheetah in the savannah. It may seem as if a gazelle should always run when it sees a cheetah. But escape is physiologically costly; If the gazelle ran every time it saw a cheetah, it would exhaust precious calories and lose opportunities to engage in other activities important for its survival and reproduction. Consider the predator’s perspective as well. It may seem like a cheetah should chase a gazelle anytime it sees one. But for a cheetah, it’s not easy just getting a bite; Hunting is a very expensive exercise and does not always end in success.