Why do we like horror movies?
Disclaimer: this article mentions some details common to horror. If you are apt to be offended or triggered by this material, don’t read this article. Try one of our other lovely blog posts. Though I personally enjoy the horror genre, this article is by no means arguing for or against the morality of the genre. I merely aim to explain the “why” behind our fascination with it.
As we enter into the crisp fall air of October some think about pumpkin spice lattes, others pull out their flannels and sweaters, but one cannot escape the old favored trend of October that is Horror or Thriller movies. The first film ever to be played in theaters, Arrival of a Train, features a train coming into station with passengers exiting and entering the cars. As it was played on screens, audience members are said to have screamed and franticly ran for the exit as they saw a train apparently careening toward them. That’s right, the first movie ever shown was horror (even if it wasn’t meant to be).
Ever since, horror has been a highly lucrative genre bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. However, when we look at the horror genre, it’s a little confusing. After all, why would we choose to spend a couple hours of our lives experiencing a vulnerable negative emotion like fear?
The answer is found in how horror movies effect the brain as well as how they effect our perceptions of life.
What happens in the brain?
Whether we are cringing at a gory chainsaw scene or jumping as the protagonist goes in that room, we most definitely told them not to go into, we can thank a series of little cells in our brain called mirror neurons for the jolt of fright. These nerves allow us to empathize with others, feel their pain, and put ourselves in their shoes. So, when we watch that girl inevitably trip while she’s being chased by the axe murderer, those nerves fire off so our brains actually think we are the ones about to get murdered. This causes a stress hormone to dump into our bodies and put us on edge; hypervigilant, exaggerated startle response, paranoid, anxious, and tense.
That said, horror movies are really quite boring without that screeching, dissonant, non-linear, and occasionally spastic music. For example, consider that sharp violin sneezing in the famous shower scene from Psycho. It turns out those shrieking instrumental sounds are close enough to the sound of a crying infant that our brains devote the same amount of attention to it. So, add a shrieking sound to a physically frightening scene, and you have effective horror.
Why do we like it?
So how does this lead us to actually enjoying the sensation of fear? Firstly, some people don’t. Some have legitimate reasons to dislike the horror genre. Some get nightmares, some have a moral issue, some startle easy and take longer to calm down. If you have PTSD or an existing anxiety disorder, the experience of watching a horror movie can trigger panic among other things because, guess what, it’s supposed to trigger panic. Which brings us to our first point.
1. The Thrill
As the brain floods with stress hormones, our fight/flight instinct is triggered and adrenaline releases. This rush then triggers a set of endorphins that we call “excitement.” Want other ways of triggering these endorphins? Try parachuting, roller coasters, or running for a long period.
2. Arousal Transfer Theory
With the horror playing across the screen, we sink into our couches, cling to the arm of our partner with one hand, and furiously dig our free sweaty palm through a bowl of popcorn. When the movie ends, we see the protagonist has survived and/or we shake ourselves back to reality where we recognize that we weren’t murdered in horrific ways and have survived. We release ourselves from the couch, the partner, and the popcorn and feel a sense of relief. This is arousal transfer theory; the negative emotions we experience in watching horror increase the sense of relief we experience afterward. We possibly gain a new perspective on life by experiencing death.
3. Confronting EVIL
We have such a fascination with the concept of EVIL that multiple founders of psychology built their theories considering its impact on our minds. People’s obsession with serial killers is a prime example of this obsession. The idea of someone committing murder, let alone multiple murders, is quite foreign for the vast majority of humanity. So, horror displays this EVIL occurrence as a sort of sideshow freak to gawk at, to contemplate, or to confront in the safe environment of the theater or our living rooms.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but viewing horror can be a method to coping… with horror. As we are exposed to our fears through horror movies, we experience… well… fear. However, as we pull back to reality, we then can recognize that we are not actually being harmed as the movie tricks our brains into thinking. This shuttling between perceived threat and confirmed safety can strengthen resiliency, emotional regulation and recognition, and general self-awareness. In a simple sense, making it through a horror movie provides a sense of accomplishment and self-acknowledgment because you didn’t die.
5. Our Collective Nightmares
After WWI, Germany faced food shortages, failing economy, low morale, and split territory alongside over 7 million casualties. Then in 1921 the horror movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released. The movie featured shadows painted directly on the set, harsh and sharp angles not seen in reality, and dark and generally creepy characters resulted in a nightmarish landscape. As Picasso’s Guernica abstractly represents the chaos of the Spanish Civil War, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari abstractly represents the post-WWI effects on Germany. Many horror movies take scenes or themes from real-life cultural fears or recent societal trauma similar to how an individual with PTSD may subconsciously repeat or create similar situations to their traumatic event.
If you consider media, like horror movies, to be a representation of current events, some patterns may emerge. Politics around women’s bodies arising in discussion of the late 60s can be seen in Rosemary’s Baby. Fears of the deterioration or redefining of the American family ordeal can be seen throughout The Shining. Then there’s America’s three most prevalent themes: sexism, classism, and racism. Night of the Living Dead, Carrie, Candyman, The Purge, and Get Out (to name a few) display these concepts as we attempt to process the many implications of these -isms on society
You don’t need to like horror movies. Frankly, you don’t need to even approve of them if you don’t feel like it. However, some can actually benefit from a horror movie or two in their life. Now, I’m not saying “go on a horror movie binge, they’re good for you!” Horror movies, like EVERY OTHER GENRE, can result in negative effects when overdone. So, regardless of your opinion of this genre, perhaps now you can appreciate it just a little more.