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Why We Enjoy Horror Films

Decoding the fascination behind scary movies.

Key points

  • Carl Jung's archetype the Shadow may be critical in understanding people's fascination with scary movies.
  • Sigmund Freud's concept of catharsis may underlie the popularity of scary movies by building up and then releasing pent-up emotions.
  • In a 2021 study, researchers reported that people who like horror movies feel less fear about the coronavirus.

By Frederick L. Coolidge1 and Apeksha Srivastava2

1 - Professor, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

2 - PhD Candidate, Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar

Approaching Halloween 2021, as if the pandemic was not scary enough, it is interesting to ponder why many of us love to watch movies that scare us. It is fascinating that people would be attracted to the violence in series like Squid Game, root for or against Godzilla when fighting King Kong, or develop escape strategies for characters in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Further, scenes from The Exorcist, where Regan turns her head completely around without moving her body, manage to stick in our minds while thousands of images from movies and our lives are easily forgotten. Doesn’t it seem more reasonable that people should move away from situations that create fear rather than being drawn towards them?

Carl Jung & Horror Movies

Horror films may draw upon what Carl Jung called an archetype, which are universal and cross-cultural themes that help form one’s personality and impel behavior patterns. One important archetype was the Shadow, and it may be critical in understanding why we are both attracted to and scared by horror films.

This archetype often represented the unknown, repressed ideas, shortcomings, weaknesses, and chaos for Jung. Generally, the Shadow consisted of unacceptable traits to society and sometimes offensive to our morals and ethics. Jung thought that the cultural expression of the Shadow might take the appearance of dark forms such as demons, dragons, or snakes in our dreams and premonitions. Interestingly, in his 1964 classic book Man and His Symbols, Jung used a picture of Godzilla as a representative of the Shadow. He also noted that this destructive force of the Shadow also had a constructive side, in the sense that sometimes things must be destroyed to be created anew.

Source: By Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais, Wikipedia

This idea is similar to that of the villain Thanos in the Avengers movie series, who used the infinity stones to wipe 50 percent population of the universe so that the remaining people could live with better resources.

Pablo Picasso’s Bull’s Head also reflects destructive and constructive forces of the Shadow, where he destroyed a bicycle by removing the handlebars and seat and constructed a bull’s head by attaching the seat to the middle of the handlebars.

Sigmund Freud Goes to Scary Movies

Primarily, scary movies focus on inducing feelings of shock, horror, and disgust. Another psychological interpretation of these feelings may come from Sigmund Freud. He proposed the concept of “catharsis,” whereby a release of strong or repressed emotions is therapeutic. It may be that this creation of fear and related emotions from watching a horror film is a cathartic experience, particularly because the person voluntarily allows the horror to be induced and they are aware that they are in a safe environment (e.g., movie theatre, home, etc.). They know that the movie is not real, no matter how fearful or shocked they become. Further, just like Freud’s explanation for repeated nightmares, it is possible that watching horror movies helps us to feel that we can control situations no matter how difficult, frightening, or macabre our problems might be.

The Personality Trait Connection

Martin (2019), in a review of 96 studies, found that increased pleasure and desire for watching scary films were correlated to less fear and less empathy. Sensation-seeking was positively correlated with horror enjoyment but less consistently. Men appeared to enjoy horror films more than women, who are more empathetic and prone to anxiety and disgust. Interestingly, younger children fear more mythical figures, like devils and ghosts, but older children’s fears are more realistic, like criminals and serial killers. Furthermore, individuals with higher manipulativeness and deceitfulness scores exhibited decreased sadness and disgust while watching these movies. Not surprisingly, people with more antisocial personality disorder traits and lower empathy preferred graphically violent scary films. Finally, more emotionally stable people got scared less easily.

What Makes Scary Films Scarier?

One of the most successful ways to produce fear is to use a loud noise after a long silence. It could be a scream, ringing of a phone, howling wind, the sound of a falling object, or breaking of glass. For example, the shower murder scene in the movie Psycho is suddenly accompanied by pulsating music, where viewers are lulled into relaxation before the heroine is violently stabbed to death.

Another method to induce horror involves using situations and objects that naturally make us more afraid. This kind of fear has an evolutionary adaptive basis. For example, the perceptual recognition of poisonous and dangerous creatures like snakes, spiders, predatory animals, and dark places does not even require one’s cortex! The reflexive recognition of these specific dangers is initially processed in the amygdala’s subcortical structure, which initiates an immediate emotion of fearfulness. Quickly after this fearful recognition, the cortex may recognize that the curved object is a water hose and not a snake. But the fear has already been induced!

Horror Movies and The Pandemic

Scrivner et al. (2021) reported that people who like horror movies feel less anxiety and fear related to the coronavirus. They proposed that experiencing negative emotions during films allows the audience to cope with them in a controlled environment. Thus, they may feel better prepared for such situations in reality. Again, their findings are reminiscent of Freud’s suggestion that the ego may gain a sense of mastery over difficult, harmful, or scary situations through repeated fearful exposure.

Conclusion

It is possible that apart from their entertainment value, scary movies may help us learn how to escape from dangerous predators and regulate our feelings, emotions, and actions when confronted with unfavorable circumstances. However, scary movies may be a double-edged sword. For those less emotionally stable, watching horror movies may only amplify anxiety and psychological distress, not only to other scary movies but also to the realities of living, e.g., a death, cancer, pandemics, etc.

This learning process is known as sensitization, i.e., a repeated stimulus increases the strength of a response. For those more emotionally stable, watching scary movies may indeed reduce anxiety and psychological distress, a process known as habituation, where a repeated stimulus decreases the strength of a response. Nevertheless, people’s fascination with horror movies remains a paradoxical mystery, where in general, people seek pleasure and avoid pain. It is a mystery still waiting to be decoded.

References

Martin, G. M. (2019). (Why) Do You Like Scary Movies? A Review of the Empirical Research on Psychological Responses to Horror Films. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2298.

Scrivner, C., Johnson, J. A., Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, J., & Clasen, M. (2021). Pandemic practice: Horror fans and morbidly curious individuals are more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic. Personality and Individual Differences, 168, 110397.

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