Trick title: I actually don’t love horror movies.
I can’t bring myself to watch them or enjoy them. I get too squeemish, my imagination gets the better of me, and no matter what, I know I’m going to wind up in the fetal position in bed, watching my closet suspiciously, knowing as soon as I turn around, the Babadook or Baghuul or the Boogeyman will jump out and murder me.
While there are people like me, there are people that completely get off on getting freaked out. What makes them tick, and what about horror creates this love/hate relationship? See my investigation after the break.
Why Do We Love Them? “It’s Science”
The only horrifying thing about Ron Burgundy is his vocabulary and his gender stereotypes, but his line is right on the money to describe what people get out of getting absolutely terrified at the theater.
What it comes down to is the chemical activity happening in your brain when you’re afraid. It’s been found by Glenn Sparks, a professor of Communication at Purdue University, that as you watch someone running for their life, your body reacts as if you’re right there with them: your heart rate and blood pressure goes up, skin temperature drops, and your muscles tense.
There’s a theory this is caused by the older, more primitive parts of your brain. Movies are a relatively new thing to them, and when you’re engrossed in a movie, the most ancient, reactionary systems can’t distinguish between you and the on-screen character. Freddie Krueger’s coming to get you too (as far as your brain knows).
Or Horror Isn’t Fear At All
Another theory supported by a study by Thomas Straube at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena showed that the part of the brain in charge of fear is in fact not activated when someone watches a horror movie.
Contradicting the previous theory, it seems like horror movies trick you into thinking you’re afraid when your brain is actually reacting to different parts of the film in positive ways. Psychologist Dr. Glenn D. Walters believes three parts of horror need to be delivered in the film to evoke that positive response: tension, relevance, and, counter-intuitively, unreality.
So Fake Horror Is Good Horror?
That’s the gist of a study done by Haidt, McCauley, and Rozin in 1994. They showed college students 3 videos of real, horrific and disgusting acts. 90% of those that watched the video turned it off before the end, too revolted to continue on; however, when asked about horror movies, the students agreed that they would happily pay to see the same actions or worse on the big screen.
Essentially, the knowledge we have when we go into a horror movie that we’ll be ok and what’s on-screen is fake makes it fine for us (still not me) to enjoy. While still working the classic techniques of cinema with tension and relevance to people’s actual fears, the theory says a horrific documentary would not draw as much attraction as a genre movie with a healthy dose of unreality.
Some People Aren’t Horror People
All the studies noted above are great and all, but what about the fraidy cats like me who still get the willies after watching The Ring when you were 14?
I may be a complete coward, but genetics bails me out somewhat. Research from David Zald at Vanderbilt University has shown that when dopamine, a hormone released in your brain when you’re put in a thrilling situation, is released, it can be more positively received in some people than in others. Some brains will chemically put the brakes on it early and some will just let it flow. The latter results in an energizing response, while others won’t take to the feeling as readily.
What Scares You May Not Scare Me
Dr. Margee Kerr, referred to as a “scare specialist”, also notes that experiences we’ve had will tend to shape our relationship with terrifying movies and what we find scary in general. So if I had a particularly terrible run in with a clown as a child, this movie might be particularly unnerving (I didn’t, but you’re crazy if you think I’d still watch it).
Dr. Kerr does say that there are learned fears that span across cultures. Commonly, they include spirits that are able to defy the laws of nature or beings naturally tied to death. They play off the human fascination and obsession with the afterlife and what could lie beyond.
What’s the takeaway?
There’s plenty of theories out there about our reaction to fear and horror movies, but ultimately, Wes Craven knows what’s going on. He said about horror moviemaking that “the first monster you have to scare the audience with is yourself.”
I take to mean that as having the idea of a scary monster means nothing unless you are using your humanity to play on people’s fears, which makes so much sense to me. It takes human connection to be able to tap into real fears and trigger those reactions from the audience that keep them coming back for more.
…except for some of us. 🙂
What makes you love (or hate) horror movies these days? Let us know in the comments below.