The XX Factor

Eek! Study Finds Books Are Getting Scarier.

Horror author Stephen King

Photo by Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images

Fans of horror, rejoice: A new study suggests that books are more attuned to fear than they used to be.

Researchers, led by Alberto Acerbi and Vasileios Lampos, combed through a Google database of books published between 1900 and 2000, a dataset that they say represents about 4 percent of books published in that time period. They were looking for words that signified six emotions: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. The results? The use of emotional words in the books in the sample declined dramatically from 1900 to 2000, with spikes between 1920–1940 and 1960–1980. But slightly before 1980, the use of words to connote fear began to climb, even as the use of terms to indicate other emotions—except for disgust, which declined more sharply than other emotions—leveled off.

What does this actually tell us about literature and the way we respond to it? The prevalence of fear in books could mean that authors feel greater fear. Or it might suggest that writers believe audiences are more interested in getting scared and that books where characters are frightened, or that make readers uneasy, are likely to sell well. Maybe the rise of nuclear weaponry and terrorism have made the world a scarier place: The researchers found that “moods tracked broad historical trends, including a ‘sad’ peak corresponding to the Second World War, and two ‘happy’ peaks, one in the 1920’s and the other in the 1960’s.”

But whatever it means that our books are more oriented toward fear—and is there a connection here to television’s obsession with violent death?—such homogeneity suggests a creative problem, if not a societal one. Knowing how to scare people or upset them may be easier than figuring out how to bring them joy. But refining terror isn’t the only worthy project for creators, even if it’s the one that attracts the largest audiences.