Horror films emerged from folklore horror literature such as fairy tales, sorcery, witchcraft, myths, and ghost stories. The desire to watch horror films comes from the desire to see gore, thrills, be independent, and solve problems.
Gore watching is defined as a desire for suspense marked by sympathy and excitement, while thrill watching is defined as a desire for suspense marked by low empathy and high sensation seeking. Issue watching, on the other hand, is a desire to feel powerless characterized by a strong identification with and empathy for the victim, while independent watching is a desire to conquer anxiety characterized by a strong identification with and empathy for the victim. (20 Fu)
Zinoman’s article, ’the critique of pure horror’ points out that the cultural appetite for horror movies is extensive despite terror and fear being the extreme emotions aroused by horror movies. (Zinoman 41). This paper will attempt to answer why some people enjoy horror movies.
Several theories and possible explanations have been created to try to explain why people love horror movies. Stephen King starts off by saying people watch horror movies to face their nightmares. According to him, we all have some form of mental illness indicated by irrational fears like fear of the dark, talking to ourselves and expressing funny faces when we think no one is watching. Therefore watching horror movies is a mechanism for eradicating fear within people. (King 38).
King further adds that horror movies offer psychic relief as they provide an opportunity for our anti civilization emotions to reign freely, experience catharsis. Emotions such as lack of empathy and sadism do get shunned, yet they are intricate parts of people as much as emotions like love, understanding, and loyalty.
Therefore, just like the latter emotions need to be exercised to have proper muscle tone, these other feelings perceived as uncivilized also need to be employed for an appropriate emotional balance of self and horror movies provide the opportunity to do so. Therefore, people continue to watch them because they can freely express these emotions without being shunned. (King 38). Since horror movies tap into repressed thoughts, they offer a way to deal with these ideas in the form of catharsis.
The psychoanalytic theory further explains the phenomenon through the concepts of repression and oppression. Zinoman in the critique of pure horror states that horror movies tend to depict issues repressed or oppressed by society. He says that the monster in horror films represents the marginalized, the sexually or politically subversive, and the taboos. For example, the 1931 movie Frankenstein, the film identified the creature with repressed homosexuality while the first zombie in the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead was a manifestation of family dysfunction. (Zinoman 41)
Moreover, according to research done by Palmer, there are some personality traits found among people that enjoy watching horror movies. Fearlessness, cold-heartedness, Machiavellian egocentrism, rebellious non-conformity and social influence urgency, sensation seeking, and premeditation are the traits established by her research. A Psychopathic Personality Inventory™-Revised subscales and UPPS subscales test gave these results. (Palmer. 14)
The assumption made in Palmer’s study is that ordinary people may have non-clinically psychopathic traits such as lack of empathy, superficial charm, and a lack of fear of consequences.
Another theory asserts that people can only enjoy horror movies if they contain tension, relevance, and unrealism are critical concepts in the horror movies. (Fu 23). Tension is created through mystery, gore, suspense terror or shock and serve the purpose of getting the viewer’s attention. Relevance, on the other hand, is based on the relatability of the viewer to the film. Cultural relevance, group type relevance, and personal relevance are what filmmakers place focus on to sustain viewership.
Lastly, the audience needs to have good comprehension that the films are not real. The understanding maintains the entertainment element of horror movies. King supports this theory by stating that the best horror movies are reactionary, anarchistic and revolutionary. (King 38)
Moreover, first time viewing of a scary film occurs due to curiosity. Thus, the third theory is of curiosity. Human beings have an innate yearning to know more about the unknown. Therefore, a horror movie continually talked about stimulates interest among those who have not watched it. Furthermore, the presence of tension and suspense aspects of a horror movie create curiosity. For example, suspense created by not knowing which movie character will be attacked next.
Once curiosity has been satisfied, two emotions further get aroused, fear and enjoyment. (Fu 20). The type of concern is not that which would repel a viewer from watching the film but rather the fear a viewer has for a character’s life. Palmer asserts that this is common for moviegoers. Enjoyment, on the other hand, shows merely that horror movies are here to stay.
Enjoyment may thrive from fascination as so many societal norms get violated which do not occur in day-to-day living. On the other hand, enjoyment may stem from an audience being happy that a specific character received a punishment they deserved. (Fu 19). Graphics and sound used also conjure pleasure and fascination by the audience to the process of filmmaking. For example, the monster in Frankenstein movie is created out of different body parts which makes it look strange yet fascinating. (Zinoman 41)
Sensation seeking also tries to explain why people watch horror movies. Palmer says that fear seekers enjoy the thrill found in horror movies as it causes them to experience physiological responses similar to other adventure experiences such as bungee jumping. These physiological arousals include; sweating of palms or a cold chill down one’s spine. Therefore, people who enjoy the adrenaline rush would continuously enjoy watching horror movies. (Fu 19)
Goldstein also adds that sex-role reinforcement is another aspect that may explain the attraction to horror movies. Men and women tend to fortify traditional gender roles while watching horror movies. Fearlessness and competence characteristics get displayed by men through seeming unmoved by the sight of blood while women can show their sense of sensitivity by expressing fear.
Goldstein Jeffrey also noted in his research that male viewers seemed to enjoy a horror movie more if they were watching it with a lady experiencing fright while female viewers enjoyed a film sited next to a male viewer who showed no fear, disgust or any form disturbance by the movie. (Goldstein 151)
However, Zinoman’s article, ‘the critique of pure horror’ explains a contrasting view to sex-role. He points out that horror movies offer male viewers an opportunity to reveal their feminine side. It occurs because many horror movie characters are females who get killed but one female character always struggles to break free from the villain’s grasp thereby emerging victorious. Male viewers then identify with this victory of the female protagonist which bends the notion that females are always often weak and incapable of surviving a threat. (Zinoman 41)
It is safe to conclude by saying many reasons that predispose people to watch and enjoying horror movies. The paper has discussed that horror movies offer psychic relief through catharsis and the idea of people watching horror to face their fears. Personality traits such fearlessness and cold-heartedness also predispose people to enjoy horror films. While sensation seeking, fascination, curiosity, sex-role reinforcement are other factors that promote horror movie watching.
Fu, Xiangyi. “HORROR MOVIE AESTHETICS: How color, time, space and sound elicit fear in an audience.” (2016). Retrieved from https://repository.library.northeastern.edu/files/neu:cj82n5571/fulltext.pdf
Goldstein, Jeffrey. “Why we watch: The Attraction of Violent Entertainment.” (n.d.). Retreived from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Clark_Mccauley/publication/279235814_When_screen_violence_is_not_attractive/links/59c016ce0f7e9b48a29ba940/When-screen-violence-is-not-attractive.pdf
King, Stephen. “Why We Crave Horror Movie.” (n.d.).
M., Palmer Adam. “Fear: A Psychophysiological Study of Horror Film Viewing.” (n.d.). Retrieved from https://digital.library.txstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10877/3220/fulltext.pdf?sequence=1
Zinoman, Jason. “The Critique of pure Horror.” (n.d.).