The Psychology of Horror Movies and Why We Are Drawn to Them

‘We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.’ – Stephen King

Fear is an unpleasant emotion we usually do our best to avoid. Yet, through time people have been drawn irresistibly to stories designed to scare them. Some of the popular theories suggest that this is because a viewer may be angered by seeing the protagonist wronged by the villain, or in the case of horror movies, an entity; but this initial excitation may intensify the viewer’s pleasure in witnessing the entity’s punishment later. Now, there are a lot of horror movies that end in terrible, violent, and scary ways, and are thoroughly enjoyed by the viewers. So, what exactly is the psychology behind scary movies, and what is this fascination with fright that we have?

Whenever there is a discussion of the psychology of horror movies and why people are attracted to them, extracts from Dr. Deirdre Johnston’s research paper that focuses on motivations for viewing graphic horror are generally quoted. In that paper, Dr. Johnston identifies four motivations people report for viewing graphic horror films: gore watching, thrill watching, independent watching, and problem watching. He argues that viewing motivations are predictors of responses to graphic horror. He also found that viewing motivations were related to viewers’ cognitive and effective responses and a tendency to identify with the killer or victims. In essence, what he suggested was that people who are lured by horror movies can be divided into four categories:

  • Gore watchers: Low empathy – High sensation seeking. Identification with killer
  • Thrill watchers: High empathy – High sensation seeking. Identification with victim.
  • Independent watchers: High empathy – Positive outlook. Overcoming fear.
  • Problem watchers: High empathy – Negative outlook. Sense of helplessness.

Another well-known approach to understand the psychology of horror movies, and people liking or disliking them, is sensation seeking concept. Marvin Zuckerman created the sensation seeking scale in 1964. According to it, People can be compared on the basis of enjoying stimulation more than others. For example, people high on this scale are the ones who enjoyed watching Annabelle, and the ones who thought it was more of an unpleasant experience fall on the lower end of the scale. For them, Annabelle was a negative experience. People have thresholds for intense experiences and some people feel more comfortable with less intense situations.

Though these theories feel dated, they are still relevant. A new research from David Zald shows that people differ in their chemical response to thrilling situations. One of the main hormones released during scary and thrilling activities is dopamine, and it turns out some individuals may get more of a kick from this dopamine response than others do. Basically, some people’s brains lack what Zald describes as ‘brakes’ on the dopamine release. This means some people are going to really enjoy scary movies while others, not so much.

Some researchers suggest other reasons, which include enjoying the adrenaline rush, catharsis, being distracted from mundane life, enjoying a schadenfreudic glimpse of people from a safe distance, et al. There may be many exceptions and loopholes to all these theories, but all of them suggest that horror movies are loved because they produce strong emotional responses. The suspense, blood, gore whatever these movies have, they put us into an excited state that we love to be in. Noël Carroll (1990) puts this as, ‘horror films stimulate and excite positive emotions like curiosity and fascination.’ The violation of societal norms, a common theme in many horror pictures, may attract the attention of some viewers because it is outside the viewer’s normal everyday experience. This attention is adrenaline-driven, exciting and fun.

How people are able to interpret negative effect as a positive experience, is an intriguing area for study. The responses that horror movies generate fall into another area that requires a deep research so that entertainers can create more such materials which are horrifying and at the same time, appealing. Horror movies allow us to play what if, and in doing so, they shape our belief systems. They help us explore the possibilities and reactions of our brain and are a good bit of fun. As Clive Barker puts it, ‘Horror Fiction shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion’

Featured Image Credits: Chris Labrenz



  1. Here from /r/psychology. Great post, well written and researched. Kudos.

  2. good research into the topic. i remember that i read about the sensation seeking scale a while ago, but did not know its relation to horror movie. thanks for sharing.

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