You know a show has done a great job when you’re left thinking about it long after it’s finished. It may be one of the more bizarre recommendations, but I have to attribute this whole thought tangent to Release the Hounds, UK S1.
Okay, so what is this show? Picture this, three people are let loose on a property somewhere in the UK, where they face multiple encounters with their worst fears. The aim of the game is for the players to find keys which unlock a massive cash prize. The clincher is at the final ‘hound’ stage, where contestants sprint to the finish line while being chased by multiple snarling dogs. Most fall short and drop to the ground as they’re savaged on camera, losing out on their money.
Whilst totally chaotic, I felt like this show pointed out a stranger and darker desire that I as a viewer intrinsically wanted to see. So I pose the question: Why the fuck do I enjoy watching people be afraid?
My mind was drawn to the Colosseum (yes, I think about the Roman Empire once a week) and its parallels with today’s entertainment services. The difference between us and the audiences of the Colosseum? Nothing. Our brains haven’t evolved physically since then.
So what’s changed? I suggest that today’s watchers still have the same need for gory stimulation as the Romans, but in a tempered way which meets the social standards of the modern age. While we don’t physically hurt people on air, psychological torment is not off the cards. I mean, think about it, what do Release the Hounds and the Gladiatorial Games have in common? The potential for fame, wealth & glory for its competitors and extreme nail-biting tension for its viewers.
I have found three key theories to explain this weird intrigue into enjoying the darker side as a viewer.
Theory 1: Threat Simulation Theory
This theory centres on the idea that people enjoy watching on-screen violence and painful experiences in the safe confines of their homes because it can teach them something about survival. Interestingly, a recent study found that horror fans and morbidly curious individuals were more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic. This same example can be applied to cringe/painful comedy shows, which teach us social skills.
This is backed up by research that finds horror films/television can function as an adaptive threat simulation, which “may be especially attractive to individuals who desire emotional and intellectual stimulation”.
Sheeesh am I emotionally and intellectually understimulated??
Theory 2: The Horror Paradox
The horror paradox says that humans have attached positive and negative associations to emotions when in reality the experience of an emotion is actually neither. Instead, this theory suggests that the ‘object’ or thing that causes the emotion is where positive or negative sentiment should lie.
Understanding that these two things (emotion and object of emotion) are different explains why people find enjoyment in considered ‘negative’ emotions like sadness and fear.
Basically, this idea holds that emotions are not intrinsically unpleasant and that someone can feel fear by watching TV, but it does not mean they don’t enjoy the experience. Especially, in the case of Release The Hounds, since viewers know the object of their fear is not real to them.
Theory 3: The Bandwagon Effect
The Bandwagon Effect is the idea that we adopt the same habits, behaviours and styles as our friends and families around us. For instance, having a bestie who’s all about adrenaline-seeking means you’re likely to be into similar things (especially when you’re younger).
The Psychology of Persuasion puts it like this: “Whether the question is what to do with an empty popcorn box in a movie theatre, how fast to drive on a certain stretch of highway, or how to eat the chicken at a dinner party, the actions of those around us will be important in defining the answer.”
Basically, if you see your friends and family act in a certain way (ie; by enjoying high-tension/fear-inducing entertainment), there’s a chance you’ll bandwagon and enjoy the same shit too.
Psychology and philosophy have covered all the bases on why we have strange impulses to watch scary stuff, and why we enjoy watching other people scared. I’m not comfortable watching real gore (obvi)… but count me in for some psychological despair on Release The Hounds any day of the week.
You can watch Release The Hounds for free on our brand-spankin’ new TV channel, PEDESTRIAN TELEVISION. It’s on the 9Now app which you can check out here to experience the same chaotic realisations as I did. Maybe I’ve read into this too far? You decide.
Image: Gilmore Girls