Our culture's love of horror is well-documented and seemingly endless. We love horror movies, horror shows, horror books, horror comics. We even love horror cakes. We don't often stop and wonder why, but according to a new theory, our love of being terrified is simply embedded in our DNA.
According to a thesis by Mathias Clasen, a Ph.D. student at Aarhus University in Denmark, our love of horror stems from a need programmed into us to adapt to stressful and apparently dangerous situations. When we watch a horror film, we're not just enjoying the thrill. We're feeding a genetic need to train our bodies and minds to respond to danger.
"When our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers in the East African savannah, it was important that they were prepared for possible attacks by predators and vermin," Clasen said. "They had to train their reactions to stressful situations, and the desire to do so became stored in their DNA—which we still carry today. When we watch a horror movie, we're satisfying that desire. We're training our danger preparedness."
But Clasen's theory goes further to attempt to explain why we're scared of specific things. Take zombies, for example. Why are we afraid of rotten things that want to eat us? Well, perhaps because our ancestors learned to fear rotting corpses for their ability to spread disease. And of course, everyone's afraid of being eaten. But whether it's zombies or vampires or just a dude in a hockey mask, Clasen claims it all ties back into our genetic need to prepare for scary situations.
"We use fiction as an 'emotional simulator' to broaden our horizons," he said. "Horror fiction exercises our reactions to what's terrible and frightening."
But that's not to say the time and place in which we live aren't a factor. According to Clasen, culture matters.
"It is, for example, necessary to understand the language in which Dracula is written. And a film like The Exorcist was made at a special time when some specific problems were debated," he said.
Though horror fans might have their own theories on why they're into thrills and chills, Clasen's confident in his ideas. And next, he wants to test them.
"I would, for instance, like to see if the brains of people from different cultures react uniformly to the same scene in a horror movie," he said. "If they do, that would support my theory."