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Why do we like a scary story?


With Halloween approaching, the number of people borrowing spooky tales from our libraries and buying them in bookshops will increase. But why do we like to read stories of ghosts and ghouls, literary tales that are specifically devised with one aim in mind – to frighten us and inspire a sense of creeping dread.

Humans spend their lives trying to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, yet we often go out of our way to make ourselves scared or allow ourselves to be frightened. We seek out and enjoy haunted rides at theme parks, read the classic ghostly masterpieces of M. R. James, or quake under our duvets after reading the latest spine chiller. Why?

For the most part, the reason is because this is the sort of fear we can be in control of. We know that what we are reading isn’t real; that unlike many of the things in our world which frighten us, this is a fear we have a choice over – we can read it or not read it. We can watch the horror movie or switch it off. Either way, a happy – or at least safe – ending for the reader or viewer is assured.

In an article for The Guardian, young adult novelist Lou Morgan said, “In reading books that frighten us, we have the choice of whether to explore our fears… or not. But if we do, we come away knowing that the monsters can be defeated…”

From a scientific perspective, our bodies are always on the lookout for danger. When we are afraid, we go into a state which, although unsettling and frightening, also gives us an adrenalin rush which produces a kind off high. We achieve a heightened awareness of every sound and sight around us. Our hearts speed up and we breathe more rapidly, our muscles are pumped with more blood with increased amounts of oxygen in it – all the things our bodies need to run away or fight our way out of trouble.

Although the feeling of fear is certainly negative, it can produce an addictive feeling of power and control, which reading and watching scary stories can trigger – but all the time you know deep inside that you are safe.

In 2014, popular author Neil Gaiman spoke in Vancouver about the psychology of ghost stories. “Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses… It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.”

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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