'Squid Game' is horrifying: It's more horrifying that we are all fascinated by it

Jenna Ryu
USA TODAY

All over the world, people can't stop talking about "Squid Game," Netflix's brutal, disturbing horror series. But why?

"Squid Game" follows a group of desperate, impoverished people risking their lives while competing in deadly children's games for the chance to win a huge cash prize. The South Korean show is filled with blood-soaked murders, psychological cruelties and ruthless death games. But despite its gore, it's currently the No. 1 show on the streamer in 70 countries including the U.S., according to Netflix.

This fascination with the deadly series isn't surprising for Krista Jordan, a licensed clinical psychologist in Austin, Texas.

"Even before 'Squid Game,' there's MMA, boxing. People used to watch witches being burned at the stake. We often don't like to admit it, but watching this kind of stuff has always been a part of our humanity."

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Park Hae-soo as Sang-woo in Netflix's "Squid Game." Sang-woo is another player caught in the deadly game, a banker who stole money and is in debt for millions.

What is so appealing about 'Squid Game'?

Not everyone is into horror. But some crave that excitement more than others – and "Squid Game" provides that thrill. 

According to Glenn Sparks, a professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, scary shows can provide a form of escapism from our ordinary, relatively civilized lives. Seeing 200 people shot to death in an episode of "Squid Game" isn't pleasant to watch, but it provides a jolt of stimulation.

"This kind of entertainment presents things we cannot see in our everyday life experiences, and to a certain extent, human beings are wired to pay attention to things that are novel," he says.

"We'll kind of be like, 'Oh man, is that cool! I've never seen anything like that,' and we derive some fulfillment from seeing things that are different."

Though not everyone is attracted to bloody murders, some people enjoy being scared. This is because our brains release euphoria-inducting chemicals like dopamine when we feel threatened. 

"Our brains are wired to find being afraid reinforcing," Jordan explains. "The pleasure center of the brain gets activated in situations of fear and threat, so you do get a little hit of dopamine, which is a reinforcing chemical that makes us want to do something again to get that thrill."

Lee Jung-Jae plays Gi-hun in "Squid Game," a down-on-his-luck degenerate and gambler who gets tempted to play deadly children's games for millions.

But unlike traditional torture porn, which relies solely on sadistic gore (like the "Saw" franchise), "Squid Game" uniquely involves a competition series – similarly utilized by the 2000s Japanese horror "Battle Royale" and even the "Hunger Games" films. This game-themed trope draws viewers not only into the blood and violence but also the survival thriller plotline. 

"In any competition, people start liking certain characters and disliking others, and that becomes a tremendous motivator for staying tuned," Sparks explains. "This is why it's probably being binged all over the world. People want to keep watching and see what happens to the characters they've aligned with – even if it is disturbing."

Many people also find satisfaction imagining themselves in these deadly games to convince themselves they'd manage to survive if presented the same situation. 

"When a character dies, we might think, 'Oh, well that wouldn't happen to me because I wouldn't make the same choice.' And for some, that rationalization relieves our death anxiety and makes us feel better," says Jordan.

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Is it desensitizing us to violence?

There isn't anything wrong with enjoying some gore, but experts worry about the unprecedented success of this untraditional entertainment. 

"It seems like a lot of people are sitting in their living room, scared about their life, and they get this reassurance like, 'Let me watch people make dumb decisions and get blown up, and then I have temporary reprieve from my anxiety," Jordan says.

Sparks fears the rising popularity of this type of gruesome content may desensitize people to real-life violence and tragedy. One 2016 study found those who were repeatedly exposed to high levels of televised violence exhibited less empathy and emotional reactivity to real-life violence – a finding that he calls "concerning." 

The players in "Squid Game" live and play in a surreal, video game-esque compound on a deserted island.

"As people consume more and more of this kind of graphic content, we may as a culture grow more numb to the way most people would react to violence and our constant exposure may be leading to that," he says.

However, Jordan notes while "Squid Game" may have a desensitizing effect, it doesn't lead to violent behavior. 

"People make this assumption that if you react to something, like a death on the news, with less emotion or sensitivity, that that's going to translate into an action. But that's not necessarily true," Jordan says. "There's a big difference between people's attitudes and their actions."