The capacity for media messages to induce fear has been the object of scholarly inquiry since at least the 1930s when the Payne Fund Studies launched the first systematic effort to study the impact of media on children and adolescents. As part of that effort, Herbert Blumer (1933) found that 93 percent of the children who participated in his study reported that they had been scared by something seen in a motion picture. Some scholars maintain that, taken together, the Payne Fund Studies introduced the “legacy of fear,” a phrase used to describe the main attitude that audiences had to media content at that time. Despite the prevalence of fright reactions to media indicated by Blumer’s finding, there was little research on this topic for nearly 50 years. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of media-induced fear certainly manifested itself repeatedly over that 50-year period.
The fact that media presentations induced fear became apparent in sporadic scholarly reports about media impact or in news reports such as those that followed the 1938 broadcast of the radio play by Orson Welles, The War of the Worlds. Researchers at Princeton University (Cantril 1940) investigated reactions to this broadcast in order to discover which features of the program contributed most to the widespread panic that seemed to characterize audience response. A few scholarly reports in the 1950s and 1960s devoted attention to the media’s capacity to induce fear in audiences (Himmelweit et al. 1958), but, for the most part, the topic received little attention until the 1980s.
Several factors probably helped to contribute to the scant attention devoted to media induced fear during the 1960s and 1970s. During this time, research was devoted heavily to the problems associated with violent media content and its possible effect on aggressive behavior. In addition, the prevailing theoretical emphasis in psychology and communication was upon behavior instead of emotion and cognition. Once the area of emotion became a primary focus of research in the 1980s, the door was open to consider fright responses to media in a more sophisticated fashion. Finally, the level of graphic horror in mainstream entertainment increased in the 1970s and 1980s. Movies such as The Exorcist and Jaws had such dramatic impact on audiences that scholars were naturally drawn to study the phenomenon of media-induced fear.
In the 1980s, research initiated by Joanne Cantor at the University of Wisconsin Madison under the funding of the National Institute of Mental Health developed the research on media-induced fear in a theoretical and systematic fashion (Cantor 1994). The first studies in this program of research were designed in order to identify the types of movies and TV programs that were most likely to cause fright reactions in children at different points in their cognitive development. A second emphasis in this research was to identify the coping behaviors that parents could employ to successfully reduce media induced fears in their children.
Cantor’s Research On Children’s Fear Reactions
Building upon the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget, Cantor attempted to make sense of children’s fright reactions to media by emphasizing the level of a child’s cognitive functioning at either the pre-operational (2 –7 years) or concrete operational (7–11 years) stage of development. This theoretical approach was used to guide numerous investigations conducted by Cantor and her associates and resulted in a number of empirical generalizations that were consistent with theoretical expectations. For example, in the younger age group, children’s fright reactions to media are far more likely to be determined by visual appearances – consistent with the emphasis in Piaget’s writings on the perceptual dependence of the pre-operational child (Flavell 1963). In simplest terms, if something looks scary, then younger children are likely to be scared. In contrast, children in the older age group are able to integrate various pieces of conceptual information into their perceptions of media content such that they can discount visual appearances in favor of other facts that help to override any fear. For example, a monster like The Incredible Hulk might not be so scary to the older child who is able to realize that although the Hulk appears to be threatening, his primary motivation is to help people in trouble and perform charitable acts that serve the common good. Thus, while the Hulk might be extremely frightening to young children, he loses his capacity to induce fear in older children (Sparks & Cantor 1986).
An important corollary to this empirical generalization is that younger children are much more likely to be frightened by content that is appropriately described as fantasy (i.e., containing events and characters that could not possibly occur in the real world). In contrast, older children who are more able to recognize that fantasy is “just pretend,” are more likely to be frightened by the sorts of media content that feature events and characters that could actually occur in the real world.
An important consequence of these tendencies is that children’s susceptibility to the experience of media-induced fear does not necessarily diminish with increasing age. On the contrary, older children are likely to recognize the ubiquity of media content that, while failing to present ugly visual features that younger children find upsetting, presents various natural and technological disasters (e.g., earthquakes, fires, tornados, nuclear accidents, and war). This research suggests that any parental tendency to become more lenient about exposure to media content as children grow older is likely to underestimate media threats to induce fear and emotional upset.
In terms of the coping strategies that parents might effectively employ to reduce mediainduced fear in their children, Cantor’s research supports the notion that cognitive strategies are more likely to work for older children (e.g., telling a child that a character is not real) while noncognitive strategies are more likely to work for younger children (e.g., distraction from the object of fear; Cantor 1998).
In addition to bringing a new developmental perspective to the study of children’s fright reactions, the research by Cantor is noteworthy for some of its methodological innovations. Insofar as fear is an emotional reaction with both subjective and physiological components, both self-report and physiological reactions are of interest. The use of physiological monitoring in the context of experiments with young children proved influential in the general conduct of research on emotional reactions with older participants as well, which now routinely includes the use of physiological measures. Although conducting research on fright reactions to media (particularly the reactionsof children) may raise concerns about the possible risk to the research participants, scholars who conduct these studies have been able to chart a careful methodological course that gains approval from institutional review boards and appears to offer more than adequate protection from unreasonable risk. When working with children, the procedures often involve: (1) the use of media material that would already be common in the participants’ media diets, (2) required informed consent on the part of the participants and their parents or legal guardians, (3) the opportunity for parents to screen the media materials prior to providing informed consent, and (4) a debriefing procedure that is designed to leave the participant in a positive emotional state upon leaving the study.
The popularity of frightening entertainment poses an interesting theoretical problem for emotion theorists and media scholars. Fear is a negative emotion that involves perceptions that some aspect of our well-being is threatened. This suggests that the popularity of frightening media is not linked to the experience of fear per se but arises from other sources that occur simultaneously or nearly simultaneously. For example, Dolf Zillmann’s theory of “excitation transfer” would suggest that the physiological arousal associated with fear may quickly transfer to positive emotions that viewers may feel at a movie’s conclusion. This additional arousal can serve to intensify the positive emotion such that attendance at frightening movies is associated with post-viewing euphoria (Zillmann 1980).
Another explanation for the appeal of frightening entertainment involves individual difference variables such as “sensation seeking”. Individuals who are high on sensation seeking may seek out frightening media for the extreme adrenalin rush that such entertainment provides. For these individuals, the fear associated with the heightened arousal is still experienced as a negative emotion but does not outweigh the positive sensation of the high arousal itself. Individuals who are low on sensation seeking are more likely to become avoiders of frightening entertainment since there is little reward to counterbalance the negative experience of fear (Zuckerman 1979).
For some individuals, the enjoyment of frightening media is undoubtedly related to the experience of satisfaction that arises with being able to conquer a threatening stimulus. According to this scenario, levels of post-viewing gratification are specifically linked to the level of fright experienced during the media event (Sparks 1991). The more difficult it is to cope effectively with the frightening stimulus that is presented, the greater the level of gratification experienced upon successfully making it through to the end. This process may be more likely to take place among males, who tend to be socialized to express satisfaction in conquering a threat.
One phenomenon studied by Cantor and her associates that is likely to continue to attract the attention of future researchers is the tendency for some individuals to suffer lingering emotional reactions to frightening media that may endure for days, weeks, months, and even years after initial exposure to the media stimulus. The fact that some people suffer such disturbances is well documented. For example, following the movie The Exorcist, reports appeared in the clinical literature that documented numerous patients who had to be hospitalized due to the experience of uncontrollable fear, anxiety, and general emotional upset (Bozzuto 1975).
Presentations most likely to induce fear are those that excel in convincing the audience that the depicted threatening events may actually occur – while simultaneously presenting the impression that there is little hope for the viewer to identify a successful defense against the threat. Thus, The Exorcist was often reported to produce lingering emotional upset perhaps because its depiction of demon possession seemed so realistic and viewers left the theater feeling relatively helpless in protecting themselves from demonic attack. In general, paranormal themes that are depicted as if they can actually happen, but that allude to a mysterious world beyond understanding and control, offer considerable potential for the occurrence of lingering fears.
The experience of lingering fears that are only induced by projected images instead of encounters with their real-world counterparts is also a phenomenon of considerable interest. One goal of future research is to increase understanding about the way parts of the brain may influence this experience. Already, in following the work on the brain, Cantor has suggested that the amygdala may play a pivotal role in preserving fright responses that arise from media (Cantor 2006). As understanding of these processes increases, perhaps strategies to reduce lingering fears may be refined and applied successfully.
- Blumer, H. (1933). Movies and conduct. New York: Macmillan.
- Bozzuto, J. C. (1975). Cinematic neurosis following “The Exorcist.” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 161, 43 – 48.
- Cantor, J. (1994). Fright reactions to mass media. In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 213 –245.
- Cantor, J. (1998). “Mommy, I’m scared”: How TV and movies frighten children and what we can do to protect them. San Diego, CA: Harvest/Harcourt.
- Cantor, J. (2006). Long-term memories of frightening media often include lingering trauma symptoms. At www.joannecantor.com/longtermfright.html, accessed November 5, 2006.
- Cantril, H. (1940). The invasion from Mars: A study in the psychology of panic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Flavell, J. (1963). The developmental psychology of Jean Piaget. New York: Van Nostrand.
- Himmelweit, H. T., Oppenheim, A. N., & Vince, P. (1958). Television and the child. London: Oxford University Press.
- Sparks, G. (1991). The relationship between distress and delight in males’ and females’ reactions to frightening films. Human Communication Research, 17(4), 625 – 637.
- Sparks, G., & Cantor, J. (1986). Developmental differences in fright responses to a television program depicting a character transformation. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 30, 309 –323.
- Zillmann, D. (1980). Anatomy of suspense. In P. H. Tannenbaum (ed.), The entertainment functions of television. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 133 –163.
- Zuckerman, M. (1979). Sensation seeking: Beyond the optimal level of arousal. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.