The Psychology of Scary Movies

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Our Fascination with Fright

There’s something about horror that speaks directly and instinctively to the human animal. Millions of years of evolutionary psychology have ingrained in our minds certain fear triggers – a survival instinct – Fear of the Dark where predatory animals might be laying in wait – Fear of animals with large sharp teeth who would make a quick meal of us. Fear of Poisonous Spiders who can kill with one bite. So ingrained into our developmental psychology that research done by Nobuo Masataka show that children as young as three have an easier time spotting snakes on a computer screen than they do spotting flowers. Research by Christof Koch show that the right amygydala, the portion of the brain associated with fear learning, responds more vigorously to images of animals than to images of people, landmarks or objects even though those are much more dangerous in our civilized world.

This may explain the shape of our movie monsters: creatures with sharp teeth or snake like appearance. The fear of being eaten alive also explains the cannabilistic traits of human monsters like Dracula and Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Hannibal

But brain scan research in 2010 by Thomas Straube at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena show that scary movies don’t actually activate fear responses in the amygdala at all. Instead, it was other parts of the brain that were firing – the visual cortex – the part of the brain responsible for processing visual information, the insular cortex- self awareness, the thalamus -the relay switch between brain hemispheres, and the dorsal-medial prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain associated with planning, attention, and problem solving.

So we’re not really being scared at the movies – at least not necessarily in the brain chemistry way… what’s going on?

What is Horror Anyway?

Before we try to explain the psychological attraction to horror lets try to establish what the allure of horror is. Psychologist Dr. Glenn D. Walters identifies three primary factors of the horror film allure.

Love at first bite

Love at First Bite

The first is tension – created through mystery, suspense, gore, terror, or shock. This is pretty straight forward elements of horror, the craft and technique of filmmaking.

The second factor is relevance. In order for a horror film to be seen, it has to be relevant to potential viewers. This relevance can take the form of universal relevance – capturing the universal fear of things like death and the unknown, it can take on cultural relevance dealing with societal issues. Audiences can find subgroup relevance – groups like teenagers which many horror films are about. Lastly, there’s personal relevance – either in a way that identifies with the protagonist or in a way that condemns the antagonists or victims to their ultimate fate.

The last factor, which may be the most counter intuitive is unrealism. Despite the graphic nature of recent horror films, we all know at some level that what we are watching is not real. Haidt, McCauley and Rozin conducted research on disgust, showing students in 1994 a series of gruesome documentary videos… few could make it to the end – and yet these same students would pay to see even worse acts conducted on a movie screen. Why? Perhaps its because when we walk into a theater we know what we’re seeing on screen is fabricated reality. Movies are edited from multiple camera angles with soundtracks and sometimes horror is tempered and made palatable with black humor – a sly wink that what you’re seeing on screen isn’t real. This also explains why we all remember that scary movie we saw when we were way too young but looks hokey now. Children have a harder time separating reality and fiction especially when its on a movie screen

According to Walters, movies that bring high levels of tension, are relevant in universal, cultural, subgroup and personal ways while maintaining an air of unrealism will have greater horror appeal.

8 Incomplete Theories on Our Attraction to Horror

So we have an idea of what horror is… why are people drawn to it?

Sigmund-Freud

Sigmund Freud

The Psychoanalytic community, including Sigmund Freud himself posited that horror came from the “Uncanny” – emergence of images and thoughts of the primitive id that were being suppressed by the civilized ego. Jung thought that horror movies tapped into primordial archetypes buried deep in our collective subconscious – images like shadow and mother play important role in the horror genre. But psychoanalysis is hard to test empirically, so it’s hard to say if these ideas fall more in the realm of philosophy.

Aristotle

Aristotle

Speaking of philosophy the Greek Philosopher Aristotle, yes – he I know, he didn’t exactly get to watch scary movies – he thought that people were attracted to scary stories and violent dramatic plays because it gave them a chance to purge their negative emotions – a process he called catharsis. Using Aristotle’s argument, we would watch violent movies and play violent video games to release the pent up feelings of aggression. Unfortunately for Aristotle, research has shown the opposite – watching violence actually makes people MORE aggressive. Pent up feelings of anger can actually be reduced by watching something else like humor or erotica. But there may still be a correlation between watching horror films and the reduction of fear.

Dolf Zillman

Dolf Zillman

The Excitation Transfer theory is sort of a new take on Catharsis. Dr. Dolf Zillmann, argued in 1978 that the 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.

Noel Carroll

Noël Carroll

Film Scholar Noël Carroll puts forth the idea that horror films are the product of curiosity and fascination. Horror exists outside of the everyday existence of normal behavior. Studies by Tamborini, Stiff and Zillmann 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.

Marvin Zuckerman

Marvin Zuckerman

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.

The Gender Socialization theory put forth in 1986 by Zillman, Weaver, Mundorf and Aust considers horror films as sort of a codification of traditional gender roles which is often referred to as the “Snuggle Theory”. Experiments with adolescent boys found that they enjoyed a horror film more when their female companion (who was a research plant) was visibly scared. The opposite was true with girls who found horror films less enjoyable when their male companions were physically scared. The girls enjoyed the film more when their boys were brave and handled their fear. This may be one shade of how horror films play in our culture but it doesn’t explain why some people go to horror films alone or what happens after adolescence.

David J. Skal

David J. Skal

Finally, DJ Skal posits that horror films are a reflection of our societal fears. 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..

4 Categories of Horror Watching

If these 8 theories are at best incomplete -what’s going on?

First we have approach the question with the idea that not all of us watch all horror movies for the same reason. In a 1995 study Deirdre D. Johnston studied 220 high school students watching slasher films and found that motivations fell into four general categories:

Jason2

  • Gore watching – characterized by low empathy, high sensation seeking, and in males a strong identification with the killer
  • Thrill watching – high empathy and high sensation seeking – motivated by the suspense of the film and more identification with the victims.
  • Independent Watching – high empathy for the victim with a high positive effect of overcoming fear
  • Problem Watching – high empathy for the victim but characterized by negative effect – sense of helplessness.

With just a small sample of adolescents in a subset of horror films – the slasher genre – we can see that there are many reasons people watch horror and sometimes those motivations might change from day to day or from movie to movie. The complexity of the brain and variation in people’s tastes, don’t allow for a simple universal explanation, though the brain scan research I mentioned earlier may shed some light on this topic.

Horror as a Vehicle for Growth

Film is the ultimate artistic medium so far devised by mankind. It combines photography, motion, visual arts, acting, writing, and music – a sensory experience that engages us so completely that watching a movie is often compared to dreaming. So would that make horror films nightmares?

The truth is we still don’t know why we dream. The Contemporary Theory of Dreaming as described by Ernest Hartmann, the professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, sees dreams as the brain’s sorting through the bits of information it’s gathered throughout the waking hours. But the images and connections we make while dreaming aren’t totally random, they’re guided by our emotions – maybe working through a recent trauma or dealing with angst and fear.

So perhaps watching a film is somewhere between being awake and being in a dream state. Much like play – films are a safe place where we can sort through stuff, learn skills to apply in everyday life. How do you defeat the a slow walking Jason Vorhees – you can’t outrun his slow stride. The only way is to face him straight on. Though a zombie apocalypse is a far fetched reality, the survivorship skills on display in a zombie horror film have some practical merit in our normal every-day world.

Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Bill Murray on Zombieland

Zombieland

Horror movies require us to face the unknown – to understand it and make it less scary. They allow us to see our fears and put them into context, to play what if, and in doing so, they shape our belief systems, how we see each other and ourselves. They are a safe place to explore and for some just a good bit of fun. The fact is we are just getting to understand how our brains work, but Scary stories – that is something that will never go away – in the words of Aurther Conan Doyle: “Where there is no imagination – there is no horror” – go out and make something terrifying!

 


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