Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why It’s Healthy to Like Horror

Being a horror fan might mean greater caring and empathy.

Key points

  • Some believe that someone must be cruel, cold, or selfish in order to enjoy horror films and TV shows.
  • New research suggests there is no difference between fans and non-fans when it comes to prosocial traits.
  • There was even evidence that horror fans might have more empathy, and be more prosocial, than is average.

The horror film genre deals with disturbing, disgusting, and distressful themes: murder, torture, bloodthirsty monsters, unholy spirits, and similarly uncomfortable topics. Given that the genre intentionally seeks to stoke terror and anxiety in viewers (Cherry, 2009), non-fans might wonder why anyone would purposely seek to expose themselves to this sort of material in the first place. After all, if fear and distress are fundamentally unpleasant, wouldn’t it make sense to avoid things that make us feel this way?

It is partially for this reason that many popular preconceptions about horror fans exist, suggesting that there might be something wrong with them (Clasen, 2021). For example, sometimes they are believed to be sadistic, since they seem to enjoy portrayals of pain. Alternately, they might at least lack normal human empathy and be indifferent to the pain and suffering represented on film. In general, the preconceptions are negative, suggesting fundamental defects in horror fans’ personalities, mentalities, or emotions.

While these stereotypes seem fairly prevalent, they largely only exist in popular culture. Very little scientific inquiry has been directed toward testing whether there is any accuracy to these beliefs or not.

Fortunately, in new research published in the Journal of Media Psychology, author Coltan Scrivner (2024) has sought to do just that. The paper reports on the results of three individual studies testing the accuracy of horror fan stereotypes. It shows that fans are not any crueler or more coldhearted than non-fans. In fact, they might actually be more empathetic and compassionate, on average.

Examining Horror Fandom and Prosocial Traits

The first study included 320 participants recruited through the Prolific platform. It aimed to determine whether horror fans had levels of prosocial characteristics that varied significantly from those of non-fans. These traits included cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and "coldheartedness."

Cognitive empathy refers to a person’s ability to recognize other people’s emotions (Batson, 2009). Affective empathy, on the other hand, is the ability to vicariously experience another person’s emotions. Both forms of empathy were measured by administering the Questionnaire of Cognitive and Affective Empathy (Reniers et al., 2011).

Coldheartedness is characterized by callousness, a lack of concern for others, and an absence of compassion (Lilienfeld & Andrews, 1996). It was measured with the Psychopathic Personality Inventory short-form (Lilienfeld & Hess, 2001).

Participants were then asked to indicate which of 50 predetermined horror films they had seen during the last ten years. Films were selected from IMBD, and cross-referenced with a panel of experts, to include only well-known films that were important to the genre. Thus, the more films an individual saw, the more likely they were horror fans. This was confirmed by checking that participants actually enjoyed the movies in general.

The results of this study showed no significant relationships between horror fandom and any of the variables of interest. In other words, people who liked horror were no more or less empathetic than people who disliked horror. Likewise, there were no differences in coldheartedness. This finding is at odds with the pejorative stereotype about horror fans being especially insensitive or even cruel.


A Different Approach

The next study included 250 participants recruited through the Prolific platform. Like the preceding study, it was designed to test whether horror fans had different levels of prosocial characteristics than non-fans. It used the same method to measure these—however, it measured enjoyment of horror in a very different way.

This time, the extent to which participants were fans of horror was gauged through several self-report measures. The author identified five subgenres of horror, based on the main focus of a film or show, and described these to the participants. These included "gore," "monster," "paranormal," "psychological," and "slasher." They were then asked to rank how much they liked each subgenre on a four-point scale. This measured how much they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “I usually enjoy [subgenre] movies and TV shows.”

The primary result from this study was determined by averaging each of these individual subgenre scales to create a measure of overall horror fandom. A regression model then determined that greater levels of horror enjoyment were not associated with affective empathy. People who enjoyed horror were no more or less empathetic in this regard than anyone else.

Even more telling, fandom was actually associated with higher levels of cognitive empathy and lower levels of coldheartedness. All of these results held while controlling for age and sex. This suggests horror fans might actually be more prosocial than non-fans.

Fandom and Altruistic Giving

The third and final study varied considerably from the first two. Within two weeks of their original participation, 215 subjects from one of the original studies were contacted again. They were told that there was extra money left over from the study and that they had been randomly selected to receive a $0.50 bonus to their participation incentive. They were also told that, if they wanted to, they could anonymously donate any amount of this to another participant who had not been randomly selected.

This is actually a version of an exercise called the "dictator game" (Leder & Schütz, 2018). It is commonly used in psychological and economics research to examine behavioral choices in somewhat realistic scenarios. It is useful for testing an individual’s sense of altruism or fairness because it gives them all of the power to decide how some resource is divided between themselves and another person.

Presumably, more selfish people will keep all or most of the resource rather than give it away. It follows that horror fans would therefore choose to keep more money on average than non-fans if the stereotypes about them are true.

However, no such result was found. There was no statistical relationship between enjoyment of horror and donation size. This remained true with both overall horror fandom and for all of the specific subgenres described earlier when examined individually.

25621 - Pixabay
25621 - Pixabay

An Unfair Stereotype

This research suggests that the stereotypes about horror fans are inaccurate and misleading. They are no more cruel and selfish than anyone else. In fact, they might be even more prosocial than average.

The significance of misconceptions about horror fans is not limited to film and television aficionados. The genre is much larger than the big screen alone, encompassing many media, including comic books, heavy metal, and video games. Many of these have also been subject to their own stereotypes and unjustified criticism over the years.

Although more research is needed, it is certainly possible that fascination with specific aspects of horror could be indicative of a problem. For example, fans who fixate specifically on scenes emphasizing graphic murder or torture, rather than the film as a whole, might indeed possess lower-than-average levels of empathy (Hoffner and Levine, 2005).

However, most people do not focus so closely on these aspects of horror without taking into account the broader context of a film. Much of the pleasure comes from the tension of protagonists trying to escape the monster or from the villain being brought to some sort of justice.

Part of the problem seems to be the oversimplification of the genre. Horror is a complex art form with many variations in topic, treatment, and theme. For instance, while there is certainly a lot of death, fear, and pain, the genre also places great emphasis on positive traits like love, courage, and the value of life.

Moreover, no two films are the same, so classifying all horror as essentially the same—and as appealing to the same type of person—is reductive to both the genre and its fans. In other words, it perpetuates inaccurate and problematic stereotypes. More research, and greater dissemination of the results, will help to combat these stereotypes and perhaps help more people see what horror has to offer.


Batson, C. D. (2009). These Things Called Empathy: Eight Related but Distinct Phenomena. The Social Neuroscience of Empathy, 3-16.

Clasen, M. F. (2021). A very nervous person's guide to horror movies. Oxford University Press.

Cherry, B. (2009). Horror. Routledge.

Hoffner, C. A., & Levine, K. J. (2005). Enjoyment of mediated fright and violence: A meta-analysis. Media Psychology, 7(2), 207-237.

Leder, J., Schütz, A. (2018). Dictator Game. In: Zeigler-Hill, V., Shackelford, T. (eds) Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer.

Lilienfeld, S. O., & Andrews, B. P. (1996). Development and preliminary validation of a self-report measure of psychopathic personality traits in noncriminal population. Journal of personality assessment, 66(3), 488-524.

Lilienfeld, S. O., & Hess, T. H. (2001). Psychopathic personality traits and somatization: Sex differences and the mediating role of negative emotionality. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 23, 11-24.

Reniers, R. L., Corcoran, R., Drake, R., Shryane, N. M., & Völlm, B. A. (2011). The QCAE: A questionnaire of cognitive and affective empathy. Journal of personality assessment, 93(1), 84-95.

Scrivner, C. (2024). Bleeding-heart horror fans: Enjoyment of horror media is not related to lower empathy or compassion. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications.

More from Jeffrey S. Debies Carl Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today