Stuart Fischoff Ph.D.

The Media Zone

Hollywood, Halloween and Horror Movies—a Killer Formula

Regarding horror movies, are humans perverse, even masochistic?

Posted Oct 29, 2011

"Darkness falls across the land,
midnight hour is close at hand.
Creatures crawl in Search of blood,
to terrorize y'alls neighborhood.
And whosoever shall be found
Without the soul for getting down,
must stand and face the hounds of hell and rot
Inside a corpse's shell.

The foulest stench is in the air,
The funk of 40,000 years,
And grizzly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom.
And, though, fight to stay alive,
Your body Starts to shiver,
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the thriller."

(Lyrics from Michael Jackson's music video, Thriller, written by Rod Temperton and spoken by Vincent Price.)

Thriller is the top selling music video of all time. Thirty years after it appeared it still scares up universal adoration. YouTube is rife with clips of people imitating the video's funk-dancing by Michael Jackson and the chorus line of the undead. There are videos teaching us how to imitate the choreography, or showing endless videos of Thriller flash mobs at weddings, in public streets or in plane and train stations. Even Philippine prison inmates caught the Thriller spirit when they performed the Thriller dance and storyline in the prison yard. Their video went viral soon after the shocking death of Jackson in 2009.

Thriller is not really that scary. It's just a superbly produced music video extravaganza with a storyline about a 1950s high school coed being scared into hysteria by animated, funk-dancing corpses allied with her now-transformed, funk-dancing date. The video is a convoluted movie within a dream within a video...or something like that.

The success of Thriller addresses the counter-intuitive issue of why so many people love movie monsters, love to be scared and love to watch other people being scared silly. Modern Halloween's popularity is sort of a global, institutionalized sanctification of that pleasure. And, it is one of the few ancient, ritual celebrations that is enjoyed as much or more by adults than children. Why else would Americans be planning to spend, $6.9 billion this year for Halloween costumes and revelry?  (according to National Retail Federation).

Why the high from being tortured by artificially induced fear. Are humans a masochistic species? Or simply perverse?

On a general level, movie monsters, horror movies, spine tingling thrillers, provide food for our imagination's nourishment. We consciously, deliberately put away the rich fears of childhood as we acquire knowledge, and temper irrational fears with rational self-talk. We also fulfill the adultified expectations of our adult peers. In so doing, we relinquish many of our superstitions with more science-based explanations. There is a cost, however: Our world of imagination is diminished, tamed into blandness. Life in Technicolor slowly fades to Black and White.

Speaking analytically for the moment, childhood fears of monsters and the supernatural are never truly banished from our adult minds; they linger like archetypes in our subconscious. Horror movies and movie monsters allow us to revisit those fears from a safe remove. If it all gets too much, too real, too close, we can just shut our eyes, stop up our ears and mutter to ourselves "na, na, na, na, na." If that doesn't work we can grab hold of our date, even slump in our seat.  Or we can admit defeat, get up, and go get some popcorn.

Interestingly, none of these escape options are usually available in nightmares or nightmarish lucid dreaming, which are infinitely more terrifying and disturbing than horror movies and have more lingering afterimages. The latter are often more realistic, harder to escape, and offer none of the cues of make-believe or unreality that movies do, such as soundtracks, special effects, or being in a movie theater with other people.  In other words, nightmares are not Halloween-horror, fun experiences.  They're too real, like home invasions and earthquakes.

In our Hollywood renditions of horror, movie monsters also provide us with the opportunity to see and learn strategies of coping with real life monsters. (should we run into them, despite all probabilities to the contrary). It's a covert rehearsal for ... who knows.  Hell, monsters come in all sorts of psychological and physical incarnations. (I've known a few...)

I've conjured up five major factors accounting for the appeal of horror-as-entertainment:

1. Life Style
One of the major reasons we go to scary movies is to be scared. But we really want a safe scare, one where we're assured that, in an hour or two hours, we're going to walk out whole, no nail holes in our head, throat still in our neck and heart in our chest. Oh, yes, and our beloved head still on our body.

Moreover, if we have a relatively calm, uneventful lifestyle, we may seek out something that's going to be exciting for us because our nervous system requires periodic revving, just like a high performance engine.

2. Personality Factors: People differ in coping styles to threat: sensitizers vs. repressors, for example. Some like to approach or confront fearful things, others prefer to avoid or deny. The former are more positively excited by scary movies than are the latter.

3. Physiology. There are people who have a tremendous need for stimulation and excitement. They want to feel something, a buzz, like the need for speed canonized in Top Gun. It's life lived on the edge. It's thrill-seeking.

People also differ in their characteristic degree of reactivity (e.g., dull, mild, or intense) and thresholds of discomfort to scary or startling stimulation, real, imagined or fictionally presented.

Such stimulus reactivity differences may be based on heredity, learning, aging, adaptation to prevailing levels of fear and excitement, or combinations of these influences. Examples  are  war correspondents, war photographers, bomb squad volunteers, trapeze performers, mercenaries— people who like to put themselves in harm's way for the arousal jag.

I think, however, that the pivotal issue here may be that we go to horror movies (and ride roller coasters), not so much because we like to be afraid, but because we occasionally enjoy feeling really excited. We search out extraordinarily intense or novel experiences. Horror movies are one of the better, safer ways to embrace and savor such experiences (as are telling ghost stories around a campfire at midnight).

Research indicates that the more negative affect a person reports experiencing during horror films, the more likely they are to say that they enjoy the genre. Studies also suggest that the pleasure of scary movies comes from the relief that follows the heightened fear.

But there's a limit to our tolerance. Generally the excitation should not get too far beyond our expectations. Films like The Blair Witch Project, The Exorcist, and the 1955 French thriller, Diabolique, exceeded such expectations by wide margins. And according to news reports, numerous audience members threw up on people in the next row.

4. Age Factors
Young people often need intense stimulation: sounds, tastes, touch. Unlike their elders, they are sensory risk takers, thrill seekers. My studies at California State University, Los Angeles indicated they also like horror films far more than most older people.

Research and observational data suggest that those in their 60s and beyond often have acquired stimulation fatigue and vulnerability anxiety regarding real or fantasy dangers. These experiences  were more easily dismissed or seen as a challenge when they were younger and more physically fit. Real and screen violence now upsets them. They want it off their entertainment radar.

Results also revealed that older movie viewers prefer haunted, more existentially pained monsters (e.g., Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, King Kong, Dracula), as compared with the younger generations'  bent toward mindless killing machines like Elm Street's Freddy Krueger, Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface, Halloween's Michael Myers, Friday 13th's Jason Vorhees, and descendants of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead's zombies.

5. Gender Factors and Gender Roles
Being in a movie theater enhances the potency of scary movies because they are usually better enjoyed in the company of others. That's why horror movies are great date movies for teens and young adults. Paranormal 3 is just the ticket for screams, squeezes and clutches. The date (male or female) can be there to reassure, protect, defend, and, if need be, destroy the evil force. Both parties are enacting culture's prescribed gender roles.

Students in my Media Psychology Lab did several small sample field studies on how the sexes behave in theaters while watching horror movies with the same or opposite sex. Observations revealed that males show more bravery and females more fear than they do when watching with the same sex. This is classic exaggerated and stereotyped gender role playing. It can also be viewed as enacting bloodless, popcorn engorged tribal rituals and rites.

Horror films and Halloween. What a perfect relationship. What a time to party and drink and... Wait. What was it Dracula said when he had a guest for dinner... Oh yes, I remember. "No thank you. I don't!"

About the Author

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., was Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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