Do Scary Stories Really Scare Us?

Third Thoughts
8 min readOct 13, 2021

Fear is often a funny, if not fascinating, thing. Over the years, I’ve said that there seems to be very little that actually scares me, even while I’ve enjoyed horror stories that effectively play upon common fears. On the other hand, the fear I tend to feel around extreme heights doesn’t usually translate well when represented on the big screen. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also found that some fears will come and go, while others grow or decrease in their intensity during certain times in our lives.

Although confronting our fears can be productive in some cases, fear does have an evolutionary basis, and many things that elicit fear are things we’d probably do well to avoid. The fear we feel when someone comes chasing after us with a knife is not irrational — it’s a signal that danger is impending and we should run, hide, or fight to ensure our survival.

It’s interesting how we react to this type of situation when we’re watching a horror movie. There are so many scenes in everything from Bella Lugosi’s Dracula to the recent Candyman film that make you the viewer want to shout to the characters, “Don’t go in there!” This moment of suspense is so common it’s become a trope of the genre. We wonder how those people on screen could be so careless, even as we sit enjoying a flick that is purposely designed to scare us.

If the horror novels we read, movies we watch, and video games we play are as terrifying as they intend to be, why don’t we toss them aside, turn them off, and hide under the covers instead of continuing through with them? Some of us don’t quite make it to the end of everything, admittedly, but it’s a question worth pondering why we turn to these sources of entertainment in the first place.

The paradox of horror is a derivative of the paradox of fiction, which asks how we can be moved by something we know is fictional. It goes as follows:

  1. We are genuinely scared by horror fictions.
  2. We know that what’s depicted in these fictions is not real.
  3. We can only be genuinely scared by what we believe is real.

Each of these seems to make some sense on its own, but taken together there’s a contradiction. If we can only be scared by what we believe is real, it suggests that we must either not…



Third Thoughts

Beyond second thoughts. This page is kept by a writer, reader, musician, and graduate in philosophy and religious studies.