Sex Differences in Recreational Fear

An Evolutionary Account of Media Preferences


  • Ida Bække Johannesen Aarhus University



horror, evolutionary theory, sex differences, fear, morbid curiosity, disgust sensitivity


In this article I examine sex differences related to recreational fear, including theory on the evolved fear system, morbid curiosity, and disgust sensitivity. I use an evolutionary framework to argue that recreational fear can appeal specifically to women, with a focus on media preferences. Through an analysis of the true crime podcast My Favorite Murder and the slasher movie Halloween, I argue that both examples are popular with women, because they provide recreational fear in a way that aligns with women’s fears, curiosity, and threshold for disgust. They are relatively less scary than many other forms of frightening media. They also center around the fear of hostile conspecifics, which is common for women to experience. Because of this, they appeal to women’s morbid curiosity towards dangerous people and their motives. Lastly, they are careful to avoid excessive disgusting stimuli that could discourage a female audience from engaging.


Al-Shawaf, Laith, David M. G. Lewis, and David M. Buss. 2018. “Sex Differences in Disgust: Why Are Women More Easily Disgusted Than Men?” Emotion Review 10 (2): 149–160. doi:10.1177/1754073917709940.

Andersen, Marc Malmdorf, Uffe Schjoedt, Henry Price, Fernando E. Rosas, Coltan Scrivner, and Mathias Clasen. 2020. “Playing with Fear: A Field Study in Recreational Horror.” Psychological Science 31 (12): 1497–1510. doi:10.1177/0956797620972116.

Baumeister, Roy F., Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, and Kathleen D. Vohs. 2001. “Bad Is Stronger Than Good.” Review of General Psychology 5 (4): 323–370. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.5.4.323.

Boling, Kelli S. 2023. “‘It’s that “There but for the Grace of God Go I” Piece of It’: Domestic Violence Survivors in True Crime Podcast Audiences.” Mass Communication and Society 26 (6): 991–1013. doi:10.1080/15205436.2022.2061359.

Boling, Kelli S. and Kevin Hull. 2018. “Undisclosed Information—Serial Is My Favorite Murder: Examining Motivations in the True Crime Podcast Audience.” Journal of Radio & Audio Media 25 (1): 92–108. doi:10.1080/19376529.2017.1370714.

Campbell, Anne, Lee T. Copping, and Catharine P. Cross. 2021. Sex Differences in Fear Response: An Evolutionary Perspective. Cham: Springer International Publishing AG. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-65280-7.

Carpenter, John, dir. 1978. Halloween. Compass International Pictures. 1 hr., 31 min.

Clasen, Mathias. 2017. Why Horror Seduces. New York: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oso/9780190666507.001.0001.

Clasen, Mathias. 2021. A Very Nervous Person’s Guide to Horror Movies. New York: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oso/9780197535899.001.0001.

Clasen, Mathias, Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, and John A. Johnson. 2020. “Horror, Personality, and Threat Simulation: A Survey on the Psychology of Scary Media.” Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences 14 (3): 213–230. doi:10.1037/ebs0000152.

Clover, Carol J. 2015. “Her Body, Himself.” In Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film – Updated Edition, 21–64. Princeton: Princeton University Press. doi:10.1515/9781400866113.

Dika, Vera. 1987 “The Stalker Film, 1978–81.” In American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film, edited by Gregory A. Waller, 86–101. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Edison Research. 2023. “The Top 50 Podcasts in the U.S. Q3 2023 from Edison Podcast Metrics.” November 6, 2023.

Gofman, Ari, Sam A. Leif, Hannah Gunderman, and Nina Exner. 2021. “Do I Have to Be An ‘Other’ To Be Myself? Exploring Gender Diversity in Taxonomy, Data Collection, and Through the Research Data Lifecycle.” Journal of eScience Librarianship 10 (4): 1–17. doi:10.7191/jeslib.2021.1219.

Haidt, Jonathan, Clark McCauley, and Paul Rozin. 1994. “Individual Differences in Sensitivity to Disgust: A Scale Sampling Seven Domains of Disgust Elicitors.” Personality and Individual Differences 16 (5): 701–713. doi:10.1016/0191-8869(94)90212-7.

Harrison, Marissa A. and Erika J. Frederick. 2022. “Interested in Serial Killers? Morbid Curiosity in College Students.” Current Psychology 41 (6): 3768–3777. doi:10.1007/s12144-020-00896-w.

Ibarra, Frank, and Dario Maestripieri. 2017. “Assessing People’s Interest in Images with Violent or Disgusting Content: A Functional-Evolutionary Analysis.” Evolutionary Psychological Science 3 (2): 133–140. doi:10.1007/s40806-016-0082-4.

Kilgariff, Karen, and Georgia Hardstark. 2016a. “Investigateighteen Discovery” in My Favorite Murder, podcast.

Kilgariff, Karen, and Georgia Hardstark. 2016b. “20/20” in My Favorite Murder, podcast.

Murley, Jean. 2008. The Rise of True Crime: 20th-Century Murder and American Popular Culture. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers.

Muris, Peter, and Andy P. Field. 2011. “The ‘Normal’ Development of Fear.” In Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents, edited by Wendy K. Silverman and Andy P. Field, 76–89. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511994920.

Nowell, Richard. 2011. Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. doi:10.5040/9781628928587.

Parsons, Elly. 2021. “I Can’t Stop Thinking About Death Post-Pandemic.” Refinery29, November 16, 2021.

Rodgers, Kathleen. 2023. “’F*cking Politeness’ and ‘Staying Sexy’ While Doing It: Intimacy, Interactivity and the Feminist Politics of True Crime Podcasts.” Feminist Media Studies 23 (6):3048–3063. doi:10.1080/14680777.2022.2098799.

Scrivner, Coltan. 2021. “The Psychology of Morbid Curiosity: Development and Initial Validation of the Morbid Curiosity Scale.” Personality and Individual Differences 183: 1–10. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2021.111139.

Scrivner, Coltan, and Mathias Clasen. 2022. “Why Frightening Imaginary Worlds? Morbid curiosity and the learning potential of horror.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 45: e297. doi:10.1017/S0140525X21002259.

Scrivner, Coltan, John A. Johnson, Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, and Mathias Clasen. 2021. “Pandemic Practice: Horror Fans and Morbidly Curious Individuals Are More Psychologically Resilient During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Personality and Individual Differences 168: 1–6. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2020.110397.

Taylor, Shelley E. 1991. “Asymmetrical Effects of Positive and Negative Events: The Mobilization-Minimization Hypothesis.” Psychological Bulletin 110 (1): 67–85. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.110.1.67.

Tybur, Joshua M., Debra Lieberman, and Vladas Griskevicius. 2009. “Microbes, Mating, and Morality: Individual Differences in Three Functional Domains of Disgust.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97 (1): 103–122. doi:10.1037/a0015474.

Vicary, Amanda M., and R. Chris Fraley. 2010. “Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers?” Social Psychological and Personality Science 1 (1): 81–86. doi:10.1177/1948550609355486.

Vitis, Laura, and Vanessa Ryan. 2023. “True Crime Podcasts in Australia: Examining Listening Patterns and Listener Perceptions.” Journal of Radio & Audio Media 30 (1): 291–314. doi:10.1080/19376529.2021.1974446.

Webster, Tom. 2022. “The State of Podcasting in 2022: Back to Work.” Medium, March 30, 2022.

Wühr, Peter, Benjamin P. Lange, and Sascha Schwarz. 2017. “Tears or Fears? Comparing Gender Stereotypes about Movie Preferences to Actual Preferences.” Frontiers in Psychology 8: 1–13. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00428.

Wylie, Jordan and Ana Gantman. 2023. “People Are Curious about Immoral and Morally Ambiguous Others.” Scientific reports 13 (1); 1–29. doi:10.1038/s41598-023-30312-9.

Zuckerman, Marvin, and Patrick Litle. 1986. “Personality and Curiosity about Morbid and Sexual Events.” Personality and Individual Differences 7 (1): 49–56. doi:10.1016/0191-8869(86)90107-8.




How to Cite

Johannesen, I. (2024). Sex Differences in Recreational Fear: An Evolutionary Account of Media Preferences. Leviathan: Interdisciplinary Journal in English, (10), 61–79.