The Psychology of Horror Movies and Why We’re Drawn to Them

The Psychology of Horror Movies and Why We’re 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. But time and again, people have been drawn irresistibly to visual stories designed to scare them. Some 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. This initial excitation intensifies the viewer’s pleasure in later witnessing the entity’s punishment. But we have seen so many horror movies that end unfavorably for the protagonist, but we still enjoy them. This raises an important question:

What exactly is the psychology behind scary movies, and what is this fascination with fright that we have?

I found a brilliant paper by Dr. Deirdre Johnston on this that focuses on motivations for viewing graphic horror. She identifies four motivations people report for viewing graphic horror films: gore watching, thrill watching, independent watching, and problem watching:

  • Gore watchers: Low empathy – High sensation seeking. They identify with the killer.
  • Thrill watchers: High empathy – High sensation seeking. They identify with the victim.
  • Independent watchers: High empathy – Positive outlook. They wish to overcome fear.
  • Problem watchers: High empathy – Negative outlook. They watch for a sense of helplessness.

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

Though these theories feel dated, they are still relevant.

New research from David Zald shows that people differ in their chemical responses 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. Some people’s brains lack what Zald describes as ‘brakes’ on 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 schadenfreude-inducing glimpse of people from a safe distance, and others. 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 puts us into an excited state that we love to be in. The violation of societal norms, a common theme in many horror pictures, attracts the attention of some viewers because it is outside the viewer’s everyday experience. This attention is adrenaline-driven, exciting, and fun.

How people can interpret negative effects as positive experiences is an intriguing area for study. The responses that horror movies generate fall into another area that requires 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’.

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