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Why are we fixated by fear?

What drives our fixation with scary movies, haunted houses, ghost hunting, true crime, creepy clowns and all things horrible?

The simple answer is (admittedly morbid) curiosity. But the complex answer snakes to deeper part of our overworked souls: We wish we were happier, and we think horror can help.

As a society, said University at Buffalo pop-culture expert David Schmid, we live with an “ambient fear." Schmid, who moved here from the U.K. in 1989, says we "live our lives at a pace that is overwhelming," often doing work we actually don't want to do and "following somebody else's script."

That is “easily translated into this sense of very diffuse anxiety about the world around us not being as friendly a place as we’d like it to be," said Schmid, an associate professor in U.B.'s Department of English.

An international study on happiness reinforces his point. Americans rank first among the 38 countries in the Better Life Index in housing and income/wealth, and high in jobs and health. But the numbers start creeping down on safety and life satisfaction, where Americans fall in the middle of the pack. And they’re downright low on work-life balance, where Americans fall in the bottom 25 percent.

[Read more: News reporters Tim O'Shei & Alyssa Fisher trek into a haunted house

We have money and homes and health. But we’re working so much that we can’t enjoy those things quite enough. That punctuates Schmid’s belief that our subconscious is “always looking for ways to translate that diffuse sense of anxiety into something concrete.”

We’re projecting.

That’s why teens and adults freak over the preposterous notion that a clown might lure us into the woods. That’s why we trek into haunted houses, willingly testing the resilience of our stomachs and lungs and bladders. It why we absorb insomnia-temping crime stories.

"Whether it be clowns or whether it be serial killers or whether it be monsters or whether it be Halloween, we’re always looking for ways to give fear and anxiety a more concrete form," Schmid said. "But also we’re looking for ways to express and release some of that anxiety in a sort of safe and controlled format."

[Gallery: Frightworld in Tonawanda] 

That's why horror is one of the most successful movie genres. Nine of the 20 most profitable films, based on return on investment, are scary movies, according to research by the-numbers.com. Topping the list, which dates back to 1953, is “Paranormal Activity.” The film was made by independent filmmakers for $450,000, then purchased and released by Paramount. It profited in excess of $89 million, a return on investment of nearly 20,000 percent.

“Paranormal Activity,” like most horror movies, doesn’t have a celebrity lead. That makes them even better business (read: cheaper to make) and psychologically satisfying.

“If anything, horror fans don’t want name actors in their films,” said Greg Lamberson, a Buffalo horror filmmaker and author. “It kind of diminishes the believability. When you’re seeing actors that you don’t know, you’re seeing them as real people.”

That’s what we want — to get in touch with ourselves. We may even want something beyond.

Joel Dombrowski sees that. His company, Buffalo History Tours, does 70 percent of its business during the summer in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

But a significant portion – 15 percent – happens in fall, when he leads a series of Halloween-themed tours. Dombrowski's programs aren’t conventionally scary. Rather, they explore the disturbing (Evil Buffalo Silo Tour) and the supernatural (a Canalside pub walk, a Victorian séance at Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village and a haunted hay ride at Spring Lake Winery).

Unnerving content can also provide "hope that there's something" and “a comforting feeling,” Dombrowski said.

“Every culture in written history has wondered about what’s on the other side,” he said. “We wonder about it. We hope about it. We look for answers. At the heart of every ghost story or paranormal story is the confirmation that there’s something going on after we die. To me, that’s a very intriguing idea.”

Email Tim O'Shei at toshei@buffnews.com

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