Why Do We Like Watching Scary Films?
A brief look at psychological horror at the cinema
Posted October 29, 2015 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
Regular readers of my articles will know that I love horror films. Although I am not a great fan of the archetypal ‘slasher’ movies (franchises such as Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, etc.), I do like a bit of ‘schlock horror’ (such as the David Cronenberg’s films Scanners and The Fly) as well as ‘psychological horror’ (such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan). But why do we love to watch scary films? Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Utrecht (and for whom I have written book chapters on various aspects of video game play) was quoted in a 2013 interview for IGN as saying:
"People go to horror films because they want to be frightened or they wouldn't do it twice. You choose your entertainment because you want it to affect you. That's certainly true of people who go to entertainment products like horror films that have big effects. They want those effects…[Horror films must] provide a just resolution in the end. The bad guy gets it. Even though they choose to watch these things, the images are still disturbing for many people. But people have the ability to pay attention as much or as little as they care to in order to control what effect it has on them, emotionally and otherwise."
According to a 2004 paper in the Journal of Media Psychology by Dr. Glenn Walters, the three primary factors that make horror films alluring are tension (generated by suspense, mystery, terror, shock, and gore), relevance (that may relate to personal relevance, cultural meaningfulness, the fear of death, etc.), and (somewhat paradoxically given the second factor) unrealism. Walters made reference to a number of psychological studies to support his argument. For instance:
“Haidt, McCauley, and Rozin (1994), in conducting research on disgust, exposed college students to three documentary videos depicting real-life horrors. One clip showed cows being stunned, killed, and butchered in a slaughterhouse; a second clip pictured a live monkey being struck in the head with a hammer, having its skull cracked opened, and its brain served as dessert; a third clip depicted a child’s facial skin being turned inside out in preparation for surgery. Ninety percent of the students turned the video off before it reached the end. Even the majority of individuals who watched the tape in its entirety found the images disturbing. Yet many of these same individuals would think nothing of paying money to attend the premiere of a new horror film with much more blood and gore than was present in the documentaries that most of them found repugnant. McCauley (1998) posed the logical question of why these students found the documentary film so unpleasant when most had sat through horror pictures that were appreciably more violent and bloody. The answer that McCauley came up with was that the fictional nature of horror films affords viewers a sense of control by placing psychological distance between them and the violent acts they have witnessed. Most people who view horror movies understand that the filmed events are unreal, which furnishes them with psychological distance from the horror portrayed in the film. In fact, there is evidence that young viewers who perceive greater realism in horror films are more negatively affected by their exposure to horror films than viewers who perceive the film as unreal (Hoekstra, Harris, & Helmick, 1999)."
According to research published by Dr. Deirdre Johnston in a 1995 issue of Human Communication Research, looking into motivations for viewing graphic horror, there are four different reasons for why we (or at the very least a small sample of 220 American adolescents) like watching horror movies: gore watching, thrill watching, independent watching, and problem watching. These four reasons were discussed in relation to various dispositional characteristics such as fearfulness, empathy, and sensation seeking. Dr. Johnston reported: “The four viewing motivations are found to be related to viewers’ cognitive and affective responses to horror films, as well as viewers’ tendency to identify with either the killers or victims in these films." More specifically, she reported that (i) gore watchers typically had low empathy, high sensation seeking, and [among males only] a strong identification with the killer, (ii) thrill watchers typically had both high empathy and sensation seeking, identified themselves more with the victims, and liked the suspense of the film, (iii) independent watchers typically had a high empathy for the victim along with a high positive effect for overcoming fear, and (iv) problem watchers typically had high empathy for the victim but were characterized by negative affect (particularly a sense of helplessness).
A really good article on the psychology of scary films by John Hess on the Filmmaker IQ website claimed there were many theories on why we love to watch horror films. I wasn’t able to check out all of the original sources (as there was no reference list) but I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the theories outlined. For instance, the psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung believed horror films “tapped into primordial archetypes buried deep in our collective subconscious – images like shadow and mother play an important role in the horror genre”. However, as with almost all psychoanalytic theorizing, such notions are hard to empirically test. Another psychoanalytic theory – although it arguably dates back to Aristotle – is the notion of catharsis (i.e., that we watch violent and frightening films as a way of purging negative emotions and/or as a way to relieve pent-up aggression (an argument also proposed as a reason some people love to play violent video games). Dr. Dolf Zillman’s Excitation Transfer theory (ETT) is arguably an extension of catharsis theory. Hess’ summary of ETT notes:
“Negative feelings created by horror movies actually intensify the positive feelings when the hero triumphs in the end. But what about movies where the hero doesn’t triumph? And even in some small studies have show that people’s enjoyment was actually higher during the scary parts of a horror film than it was after."
Hess then goes onto outline the thoughts of Noël Carroll (a film scholar) who claimed that horror films are played out outside normal behaviour and involve curiosity and fascination. Hess writes:
“Studies by [researchers such as Zillman] have shown that there is a significant correlation between people who are accepting of norm-violating behavior and interest in horror movies. But that doesn’t explain why some viewers respond positively when the norm violators such as the sexual promiscuous teenage couple, the criminal, the adulterer – are punished and killed by the movie monster. This ‘enjoyment’ of the punishment of those that deserves it makes up the Dispositional Alignment Theory. We like horror movies because the people on screen getting killed deserve it. But this may give us insight into who the audiences want to see eat it but it’s not a clear picture of why horror films are popular in the first place. Another theory put forth by Marvin Zuckerman in 1979 proposed that people who scored high in the Sensation Seeking Scale often reported a greater interest in exciting things like rollercasters, bungee jumping and horror films. Researchers have found correlation but it isn’t always significant. Even Zuckerman noted that picking only one trait misses the fact that there are lots of things that draw people to horror films."
Dolf Zillmann (along with James Weaver, Norbert Mundorf and Charles Aust) put forward The Gender Socialization theory in a 1996 issue the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (it's sometimes referred to as the ‘Snuggle Theory’). Zillman and his colleagues exposed 36 male and 36 female undergraduates to a horror movie in the presence of a same-age, opposite-gender companion of low or high initial appeal who expressed mastery, affective indifference, or distress. They reported that men enjoyed the film most in the company of a distressed woman and least in the company of a mastering woman. Women enjoyed the movie most in the company of a mastering man and least in the company of a distressed man. Hess says these findings don’t explain why some people go to horror films alone or what happens after adolescence. Finally, cultural historian David Skal has argued that horror films simply reflect our societal fears. As Hess notes:
“Looking at the history of horror you have mutant monsters rising in 50s from our fear of the nuclear bogeyman, Zombies in the 60s with Vietnam, Nightmare on Elm Street as a mistrust in authority figures stemming from the Watergate scandals and Zombies again in the 2000s as a reflection of viral pandemic fears. But for as many horror cycles that fit the theory, there are many that don’t. And horror films work on a universal level crossing national boundaries while still working in different cultures."
Basically, none of these theories fully explain why we love watching scary films. Different people like watching for different reasons and no theory has been put forward that explains everyone’s motives and reasoning. I will continue to enjoy watching even though I don’t fully understand my own motives.
Haidt, J., McCauley, C., & Rozin, P. (1994). Individual differences in sensitivity to disgust: A scale sampling seven domains of disgust elicitors. Personality and Individual Differences, 16, 701-713.
Hess, J.P. (2010). The psychology of scary movies. Filmmaker IQ. Located at: http://filmmakeriq.com/lessons/the-psychology-of-scary-movies/
Hoekstra, S. J., Harris, R. J., & Helmick, A. L. (1999). Autobiographical memories about the experience of seeing frightening movies in childhood. Media Psychology, 1, 117-140.
Johnston, D.D. (1995). Adolescents’ motivations for viewing graphic horror. Human Communication Research, 21(4), 522-552.
McCauley, C. (1998). When screen violence is not attractive. In J. Goldstein (Ed.), Why we watch: The attractions of violent entertainment (pp. 144-162). New York: Oxford.
O’Brien, L. (2013). The curious appeal of horror movies: Why do we like to feel scared? IGN, September 9. Located at: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2013/09/09/the-curious-appeal-of-horror-movi…
Walthers, G.D. (2004). Understanding the popular appeal of horror cinema: An integrated-interactive model. Journal of Media Psychology, 9(2). Located at: http://web.calstatela.edu/faculty/sfischo/horrormoviesRev2.htm
Zillmann, D., Weaver, J. B., Mundorf, N., & Aust, C. F. (1986). Effects of an opposite-gender companion's affect to horror on distress, delight, and attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(3), 586-594.