When individuals suffer from anxiety disorders and phobias, they have a number of behavioral, affective, and physiological processes operating. For instance, chances are they have acquired a core belief that the world is somehow a dangerous place. They see threat in certain circumstances or situations. Alternatively, people start associating stimuli (places, objects or situations) that were previously positive or neutral with fearful or even terrifying stimuli. As a result, the previously “safe” stimuli become conditioned by this association to produce an extreme fear response in these people. Once a stimulus is capable of eliciting this intense fear, individuals do what they can to avoid or escape the stimulus. This avoidance or escape works in the short term because it reduces fear, but in the long run these folks do not have an opportunity to experience that these events or places cannot really harm them. Their belief that the world is a threatening place becomes entrenched even further. The cycle of beliefs, learned fear, and avoidance patterns seems to take on a life of its own.
When individuals with anxiety come for psychotherapy, they learn to manage their fears through a therapy process which involves gradually approaching (instead of avoiding) the feared situations. This process of exposure and desensitization starts with “easier” versions of the fear and then gradually moves up to the most troubling examples. The person is essentially working their way up a hierarchy of anxious stimuli until they can approach all aspects of their fears.
Okay, can this “exposure” process be happening to horror fans? I think it does. For those of us who have been living on this stuff for years, if not decades, we are gradually becoming habituated to the horror genre. There is not much that can shake us anymore. We have been exposed to all forms of the “scary” hierarchy so many times that there is not much left that can make us frightened. So, I think we need to change our perspective on what is scary. The shocks may not occur very frequently anymore (sigh), but maybe the creepy plot or a different twist or an unusual character reaction to a narrative event may be the “new fear” for us. I have tried to embrace this notion with some success. And when the hairs on the back of my neck rise just a little, I am pleased.