Scary stories are good for you

How can you stimulate healthy living?

Scary stories are good for you

If you want young people to smoke or drink less, your best bet is to tell them a scary story about the horrific effects of tobacco and alcohol and make it star someone their age.
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen
30 September om 11:32 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:17 uur.
September 30 at 11:32 AM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:17 PM.

Her boyfriend would often shudder whenever he walked into the room and saw the pictures on the computer screen. ‘Can’t you go study something else?’ he’d ask.  

His reaction isn’t surprising, since most of the time Joëlle Ooms would be looking at pictures showing the effects of smoking. Or she’d be looking at skin cancer. Her screen would fill with images of horrific surgeries, blackened lungs, or skin tumours. ‘The pictures I looked really were quite gross. But I was looking at them through my research glasses, to see if I could use them.’ 

Fear appeals

Communication exper Ooms was working on a study of scary stories in the health sector. She already knew that a good story can lead to people changing their behaviour to examine their breasts or testicles for tumours, and that scary messages worked as well. But no one had studied whether a combination of the two – scary stories – were effective in any way. She will receive her PhD for her research on October 17.

‘I looked at the effect of so-called fear appeals or testimonials. Stories of people’s experiences like you read in magazines’, says Ooms. ‘Like about women who didn’t get a mammogram and who now have breast cancer.’ 

People have to identify with the protagonist

Ooms also wanted to know if these fear appeals had to be textual. ‘I wanted to know whether images would work as well. They’re much more effective in campaigns where you want to hang posters.’ 

What’s important in these stories is the concept of ‘transportation’; people should get sucked into the story and want to know how it ends. ‘Otherwise people will just stop watching.’ So how does one accomplish this? 


For that, the stories have to make people identify with the protagonist. People are really good at identifying with other people, Ooms explains. ‘Take a film like Wall-E for example. It’s so cute! And even though people know it’s not real and it’s just a stupid little robot, they still want him to be okay.’ 

Scary stories are used in a myriad of ways, she says. For instance, in campaigns to reduce fireworks accidents, where people talk about how they lost fingers or eyes to dangerous fireworks, or a campaign to make traffic safer, where someone is shown hitting a child because he’s driving too fast on a residential street. But it’s still unclear which factors actually make the message hit home and make people change their ingrained bad behaviours.

Young people are fairly egotistical, only thinking about themselves

So Ooms went looking for suitable scary stories to show to her test subjects. It wasn’t easy: the stories couldn’t be too long or too short. They had to be personal stories, as well as believable. ‘And I’m not a writer!’ 

Ultimately, she found a testimonial about a man with testicular cancer in a British magazine that met her criteria. She adapted and translated it, doing the same for stories about breast cancer and skin cancer. Finally, she found some pictures that showed the effects of smoking. She then showed these to her test subjects.


She noticed that young people were mainly transported into the story and able to identify with the protagonist if the story starred one of their peers. ‘They were transported more and showed more emotion’, says Ooms. Interestingly enough, older test subjects responded differently. For them, it didn’t matter whether the protagonist was a peer; they were also transported into stories with younger protagonists, and were able to identify with them as well. So what’s the deal? 

Ooms can only speculate. ‘Maybe it’s because older people remember what it was like when they were young. Also, young people are fairly egotistical, only thinking about themselves.’ The protagonist’s gender had no discernible effect on the test subjects.


The same processes occurred when Ooms used images rather than stories. She showed people an image of two sad people next to a coffin, with the text ‘smoking can harm your unborn child’ superimposed over it. ‘People identify with the people in the picture, and they’re transported as well.’ 

This knowledge could be used to tailor campaigns to specific audiences. Ooms says it’s better to use a young person than an old one. It’s been proved to reach a wider audience. And if you want to use posters, you can just print the scary story so people can read it.



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