The following is an interview conducted by Archbridge Vice President of Research and Director of the Human Flourishing Lab Clay Routledge with Coltan Scrivner, a research scientist at the Recreational Fear Lab. We discuss his research on the psychology of horror, true crime, and people’s morbid curiosity.
Clay Routledge: What is morbid curiosity, and what made you interested in studying it?
Coltan Scrivner: Morbid curiosity can be simply defined as an interest in information about danger or threats. Sometimes those threats can be real, such as a natural disaster or local murder, and sometimes they can be fictional, such as a zombie in a horror movie. It’s important to note that “morbid” refers to the type of content (i.e., content about threats that could lead to death) and does not mean curiosity about these topics is “bad.” In fact, there’s good reason to believe that morbid curiosity has been an important defense throughout our species’ evolution and may contribute to well-being in surprising ways.
Although I’ve been a horror fan since I was a kid, I never anticipated that I’d study it. When I started my PhD, I became interested in the fact that humans across time and space seem to be interested in violence as entertainment. Most of the time, violence is seen as abhorrent, immoral, and to be avoided. However, given the right context, violence was often viewed as entertaining. Soon after I began looking into this, I also became interested in why people scare themselves for fun. Fear, like violence, is often avoided and seen as a bad thing. But, in the right circumstances, it can be fun and sought out. Combining these two lines of research and the ideas that emerged from them led me to the concept of morbid curiosity.
Clay: Are there different reasons that people are morbidly curious? And does the type of content matter? For instance, does it say something about people if they like supernatural fiction stories more than they like stories about real serial killers? Are people who are really into the zombie apocalypse different in some interesting way from people who are into ghosts and haunted houses? And so on.
Coltan: According to my research, there are four main dimensions of morbid curiosity. One of those I’ve called “minds of dangerous people.” This dimension is all about interest in understanding why people are sometimes violent. True crime is beautifully captured by this dimension.
Another dimension is “paranormal danger.” Curiosity in this dimension centers around uncommon events or agents where the cause is difficult to ascertain or the agent responsible is difficult to understand. Interest in ghosts, spirits, and aliens would all fall into this category.
A third dimension is bodily injuries. Bodily injuries are interesting because they can tell us something about the thing that caused the injury. Our estimation of how powerful and dangerous a threat might be is directly related to the amount of damage it can do to the body.
The final dimension is violence. In some sense, all morbid curiosity boils down to violence. Morbid curiosity exists because it’s adaptive for animals to know about threats around them. It’s adaptive to know about threats because threats enact violence upon us, and violence enacted upon us is bad from an evolutionary standpoint. Curiosity in this dimension is curiosity about the act of violence itself – what it looks like and how it plays out.
Although the four dimensions share a core aspect of threat-learning, people can be higher in some dimensions and lower in others. Those sensitive to high arousal might avoid content with direct violence but still be curious about the things that may cause it (e.g., minds of dangerous people/true crime). Personal experience or perceived exposure to a particular kind of threat can also influence the type of content you’re more curious about. There’s a fascinating study from the 1970s that found that after a murder happened on their college campus, students were much more likely to get tickets to see a true crime movie at their local theater.
Clay: Fear is a very useful emotion. But fear can also be a barrier to personal growth. When people are afraid or anxious, they become more defensive and less willing to take risks and explore new ideas. Can purposely engaging with fear-inducing entertainment help people manage their anxieties in a productive way? Can it help them grow as individuals?
Coltan: This is one of the more fascinating directions my research has taken. There’s certainly some evidence that engaging with fear-inducing entertainment, or “recreational fear,” can help people grow as individuals. I led a study alongside my colleagues at the Recreational Fear Lab a few years ago that looked at this very question. We spent the weekend at Dystopia Haunted House in Vejle, Denmark, studying people who paid money to be chased around by monsters at a dark abandoned fishery. What could possibly drive people to do this? When we interviewed participants after the haunt, we asked them if they felt like they had learned something about themselves or developed on a personal level. A large portion of our participants indicated they felt this was true. They often spoke about facing their fears and now feeling more confident in their ability to face and overcome fearful situations. The kicker was that the most fearful participants reported this. Those who were the most afraid of horror, but still decided to brave the haunted house anyway, were the ones who felt like they had grown as a person and learned something important about themselves.
Clay: More specifically, you studied how horror media consumption related to psychological functioning during the COVID-19 pandemic. What did you find in that research?
Coltan: My frequent collaborator Mathias Clasen and I had this hypothesis that people who engage with fictional fears would be better at dealing with real fears because they have, in some sense, practiced feeling afraid. Of course, this is a bit tricky to test. When COVID happened, most people were facing something new and scary for them, whether that was the virus itself, the lockdowns, or the uncertainty of the future. When we surveyed US participants about their experience dealing with the early months of the pandemic, we found that horror movie fans were experiencing less psychological distress. Relatedly, participants who scored higher in morbid curiosity reported greater positive resilience — feeling optimistic about the future and believing they can get through the difficulties of the pandemic. These findings held true even when we controlled for general personality (i.e., the Big 5), enjoyment of movies in general, income, sex, and age. Playing with fear seemed to have helped some people face a very real
Clay: What about potential negative psychological effects? Are there any reasons to be concerned about people’s morbid curiosity or consumption of horror media?
Coltan: Average or even somewhat high levels of morbid curiosity and consumption of horror media don’t seem to be associated with negative psychological effects. Of course, if you watch a scary movie, you might feel a little anxious for an hour or two afterwards. But this isn’t a long-term effect. There doesn’t seem to be any real association between being morbidly curious or watching horror and having less empathy, despite what a few older studies have reported and what a number of cultural critics claim.
We might eventually find some negative psychological effects of being morbidly curious or being a horror fan, but to my knowledge, there isn’t much data to back up the claim today. One potential area to look into is conspiracy theories. Morbidly curious people are a bit more interested in conspiracy theories — which makes sense, as conspiracy theories typically involve a potential threat. This isn’t an issue unless they are also likely to take extreme action related to a conspiracy theory. So far, there’s no evidence of that.
Clay: I am an optimistic person. I am very hopeful for the future of our country and the world. But I love science fiction and horror movies that present a dark vision of the future. I like to think that interest in dystopian fiction might support a hopeful vision of the future by encouraging us to think about potential threats to human progress and flourishing and inspiring us to avoid or seek solutions to those threats. But I can also imagine dystopian fiction acting as a barrier to progress and flourishing by making people feel more anxious and pessimistic about the future. How do you think our love for dystopian fiction relates to human progress?
Coltan: I think you said it yourself in the question: it’s all about how you approach it. This is true of scary play more broadly. If I engage in a scary-play experience, I have the opportunity afterward to reflect on it. How did I respond to the information? What could the protagonists in the film have done differently? What other routes might this narrative have taken? That information itself is neutral; we can overlay a pessimistic or optimistic attitude on top of it. Seeing a terrible dystopian future in a film or novel could help us realize that maybe our situation isn’t so bad, and that it isn’t beyond repair. COVID lockdowns sucked, but at least there weren’t zombies. And if the people in the zombie movies figured it out, maybe we can, too.
Clay: Is there anything else you have learned in your work on morbid curiosity that you think could be helpful for promoting human flourishing?
Coltan: Things aren’t always as they seem. It’s easy to imagine that the only route to promoting something like human flourishing is to promote positively-valenced things. However, we sometimes need to face the negative things to flourish.
Take the immune system as an analogy. Our immune system can learn to overcome pathogenic threats by being exposed to safe versions of those threats via inoculations. To someone who doesn’t know anything about the immune system or human sickness, that sounds crazy. But as soon as you understand a little bit about how immune systems work, it makes perfect sense. The same is true of our fears. We can learn how to overcome our fears by being exposed to safe versions through scary play.