In this edition of Dangerously Curious we examine the Halloween inspired topic of why people enjoy watching scary movies (but well after Halloween at this point). Why do people want to pay money to feel unsafe, scared, or see images that many people would consider highly disturbing? Is this something that humans are just naturally attracted to or satisfies some sort of basic human urge? Keep in mind that these articles are mostly meant for some lightly researched fun (and act to satisfy my curiosity as well as yours), and they are not meant to be an exhaustive or comprehensive write-up on any of these topics.One researcher who has investigated this topic is Glenn Sparks, a professor at Purdue. He says that when we watch scary movies our reaction to them closely resembles our reaction to real life dangers. Viewers can experience sensations such as sweaty palms, heightened pulse, and tensing muscles. We also experience a flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine in our bodies. These are the same chemicals that course through our bodies when we feel a rush of excitement from a roller coaster or other thrilling activities. Some people may enjoy this rush more than others, often referred to as “adrenaline junkies”, and are more attracted to seeking out activities of this nature.
Unlike activities which could potentially injure someone (or create excitement due to giving the sensation of potential harm), viewers in a movie theater have no risk of actual physical harm (besides slipping on spilled drinks and popcorn). David Zald, from Vanderbilt University, says that scary movies give us a way to experience the primordial excitement of a fight or flight situation while in the comfort of a movie theater. Sparks suggests that this flood of emotion and fear is not only potentially fun and exciting while sitting in the theater, but heightens the sensation and possibly the enjoyment of everything that happens after the movie has finished. People may also forget the scary parts of the movie they just saw, and only remember the excitement they felt during and after the movie. Sparks found that young men especially tended to enjoy horror movies based on how scared they felt. He hypothesizes that this might have a connection to old tribal rituals that men use to have to complete in order to be excepted in to society. Conquering an extremely scary film might satisfy this urge to conquer a frightening or challenging ordeal in order to enter manhood. Zald believes that this feeling of satisfaction or accomplishment may extend to all people though. He believes that people may enjoy scary movies because they feel a sense of accomplishment or bravery after finishing them, such as the reaction to making it through a whole haunted house. I imagine that there may also be a social element at play of impressing your friends or the bonding experience of surviving something frightening together.
So, that might help explain why we enjoy watching a horror film, but do we seek them out for any reason besides some physical and mental stimulation? James Weaver, from Emory University, thinks that some people may simply watch horror movies because we are explicitly encouraged by parents or society to not see them. Such as, teenagers may seek out horror films because parents might forbid the viewing of these films. Another reason people may be drawn to them is due to our human attraction toward morbid curiosity, such as not being able to turn away from a car wreck or train crash. This could be related to our basic need to keep aware of, monitor, and quickly assess dangers in our environment to help keep ourselves safe. I have heard some arguments that horror movies fulfill some primordial human desire to exercise our fight or flight mechanisms and to face and overcome danger in our lives. This potentially stems from our ancestors existing in a time full of many more life threatening dangers than we currently face in many modern societies. Our bodies and minds might not have fully adapted to our more tame modern lives. We as humans also just might have a fascination with the unknown and the supernatural.
Sparks sees scary movies as a way for us to potentially cope and deal with real life fears and violence. He has previously pointed out one study, which found that people in a community had a sharp increase in interest in movies featuring gruesome murders after a gruesome murder had occurred in that community. Movies such as Saw and Hostel, which feature instances of what many call “torture porn” (or people being attracted to movies to see explicit scenes of human torture), became popular at about the same time as media talk about torture of terrorists was common. People might have been curious about this subject due to all the media conversation and then looked for movies featuring torture to satisfy their curiosity. Though personally, I doubt that these were the first popular horror films to feature explicit torture scenes (but possibly the most popular ones in recent times). Weaver points out that we might see more of these movies now due to more convincing special effects being available to movie makers.
One famous explanation of why we are drawn to horror movies was proposed by famous horror writer Stephen King. King proposes that all humans are, to some degree, insane and twisted. Horror movies and novels give us a way to purge and satiate our darker urges. Psychologists refer to this as “symbolic catharsis”, where watching violent behavior allows us to not have to act violent in real life. Some of King’s work centers around this idea of the psychopath in all of us. Characters like Jack Torrance in The Shinning seem normal and mundane at first but then become crazy murderers under the right conditions (maybe they should have watched more horror movies). I don’t personally ever feel like I need to do anything even remotely close to some of the awful things I see characters do in horror movies. Certainly almost everyone has had some dark thoughts in their lives, but I find the idea that these thoughts are on the same level as crazy chainsaw wielding maniacs a little difficult to believe. But, maybe it’s just more comforting to believe that “normal” or “typical” people are not capable of things like that.
What if horror movies don’t purge our violent thoughts but instead reinforce and strengthen them? There is some evidence that horror movies and violent movies may lead to more aggressive and less tolerant behavior. Weaver performed a study where students were shown violent films for several nights in a row (mostly violent action films). The following day students (some of whom were shown violent movies and others who were not) were asked to perform a simple test, but research assistants conducting the test were instructed to be rude to the students. When the students were asked if the research assistants should be disciplined for their rude behavior, those students who had been subjected to the violent films wanted harsher punishments for the research assistants who had bothered them. Weaver suggests that these films “primed” these students to seek out more aggressive and/or violent solutions to problems.
Even though horror movies can be seen as some harmless fun, Joanne Cantor, Director of Center for Communication Research at the University of Wisconsin, found that sixty percent of her students are still haunted by images from horror movies they saw when they were fourteen or younger. She suspects that images from horror movies may be stored in the same part of the brain as images from real traumatic situations, and are potentially very difficult to ever forget. Cantor suggests that young children are especially susceptible to horrific images, which can stay with them for anywhere from hours to years. I can think of a handful of people I have met who still get chills from certain films they saw when they were younger.
An interesting note is that people might experience some similar reactions to horror movies as real life scares, but humans probably still react differently to witnessing horrific images they know are real. One study, done by Jonathan Haidt from New York University, found that ninety percent of a study group composed of hardcore horror fanatics turned off video featuring gruesome images of real life events (including explicit surgery and animal mutilation) before the end of the video. Some people might be okay with violent behavior in movies, but they are potentially unwilling or unable to witness such activates happening to real people or animals. Maybe this is why many horror films have cheesy plots and poor acting. Possibly as an audience we like being occasionally reminded that the thing we are watching aren’t real, so we can enjoy the film without feeling truly scared or like amoral people. Or, maybe we just like having a bit of silly fun while being a bit scared.
Thanks for reading and please leave any comments you have about why horror movies scare us below!