This Is Your Brain on Culture

How stories, poems, plays, movies and other arts matter

Why Are There Horror Movies?

We get pleasure from unpleasurable emotions--how? why?

Recently our local film club showed Roman Polanski's legendary horror flick of 1965, Repulsion. One member called it the "scariest movie I've ever seen," and most of us agreed. Other members stayed away, avoiding the horror. But most of us watched it, and we enjoyed it--although that seems an odd expression for the experience--and we ended with a spirited, cheerful discussion of the heroine's pathology.

Now, why would we do that? Why would we enjoy having the most negative of negative emotions, fear?

The question is as old as Aristotle. Disgust was the emotion he addressed. Why do we enjoy still lifes with ugly things in them?, he asked. Why do we enjoy tragedy? His answer was purely cognitive. We learn even from ugly or painful things, and we enjoy learning, that is (in McKeon's translation), "gathering the meaning of things."

Aristotle gave a cognitive anwer. Somehow the cognitive payoff counterbalances the negative experience. I don't believe it.

Evolution suggests a different answer. Driving past a particularly gruesome accident on the highway, we crane our necks around to see the blood and guts. Fear and disgust signal dangers, and we do well, evolutionarily, to pay attention to them in order to maximize our chances for survival and reproduction. But that's the real world. Evolution doesn't suggest why we seek out fear, disgust, or anger in works of art like Polanski's movie.

It seems to me the crucial thing is that we had no need to act in response to what we were fearing in Repulsion. Had we been peeping through a window at the heroine's violently deteriorating into schizophrenia, we would hardly have enjoyed the experience. We would watch her "crack" in Polanski's visual metaphor.  We would have felt we ought to do something. Ring the doorbell. Call 911. That's the difference between fictionality and actuality.

I think that fictionality (= non-acting in response to an emotional stimulus) leads to pleasure. Actuality (= having to decide about acting in response to an emotional stimulus) leads, not to pleasure, but to planning motor activity. And that in turn requires brain activity. With Repulsion (and other instances of negative emotions in literature), I think that experiencing that relaxation, that knowing that we won't have to do anything about this poor girl's craziness, is in and of itself pleasurable.

And why is that? I think a possible explanation is that we are economizing in psychic energy. Could it be that whenever we experience a saving in expenditure by the brain we experience pleasure?

What pops into mind is Freud's explanation of why we laugh at jokes. Very briefly, he claimed that the three forms of humor he dealt with involved the release of energy previously used for inhibition by superego or cognition by ego. The excess energy, he claimed, went off as laughter. (For a more detailed account, see his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious or my book Laughing.)

Could Freud be on to something here? Could it be that, in general, if our brains sense a sudden de-mobilization of energy mobilized for some action in the outer world, when that energy is released, we feel pleasure?

I think so. I think we turn to literature, to stories, poems, plays, or movies, in order to have our emotions stimulated, even in unpleasurable ways. We do so because we experience, even durng the literary work, a continuing release of psychic energy (brain effort) from knowing at a cortical, cognitive level that we do not have to act in response to those sub-cortical, emotional signals. We know before we enter the movie theater that we will feel unpleasurable fear during the movie or the story, but we also know that we will feel pleasure (even during that fear!) because we know we won't have to do anything about it.

Items I've referred to:

Aristotle, Poetics. Ch. 4.
Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. 1905c. Standard Edition 8: 8-236.
Holland, Norman N. Laughing: A Psychology of Humor. Cornell UP, 1982. 47-60.
Holland, Norman N. Literature and the Brain. PsyArt Foundation, 2009. Ch. 10.
McKeon, Richard, ed. and trans. Introduction to Aristotle. New York: Modern Library, 1947. P. 627.

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Norman Holland, Ph.D., specializes in the psychology of the arts. His latest book is Literature and the Brain.

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