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Why Do People Like Horror Movies?

The ads for Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios in Orlando are feverish: "Never before has the event featured such a catalog of horror. Everyone knows 'SAW,' 'The Wolfman' and 'Chucky.' And now everyone will get to live them in person."

But who wants to, and why? According to experts, the various reasons why children, young adults and some of their elders find this time of year so bewitching have roots buried in biology and psychology.

A horror movie "makes you think, what if it was reality?" says Travis Street, who was waiting on line to see "Paranormal Activity" with his girlfriend Nadine Dellipaoli at a Fort Myers theater recently.

Experts cite several other reasons that some people like scary movies:

-- For the thrill of it. Among others, former American Psychological Association president Frank Farley has written that some people have a "type T" -- or thrill-seeking -- personality. More are young but they can be found in all age groups. They are the sky divers, the bungee jumpers, the horror-movie-goers. They enjoy the adrenaline rush and racing heart of fear -- the biological fight-or-flight response.

-- Because young people are wired for it. Adolescents in particular live hysterical lives, says media psychologist Stuart Fischoff. "They have a need for a higher intensity level, for louder music, faster cars."

That neurological need declines with age, Fischoff says. In his work at California State University, Los Angeles, on how age, gender and race affect film preferences, he found that while young people enjoy scary movies, adults 50 and older showed the least appreciation for them.

-- Because it only seems real. Even adolescents want to be aware that the action isn't really happening. "If it goes too far, people introduce defense mechanisms ... they say 'it's only a movie,' or hide their eyes or go get popcorn," Fischoff says.

-- To grow up. Southwest Florida licensed clinical social worker Cindy Matthes-Loy, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, says that the safe fright of horror movies serves an evolutionary purpose. "This is all related to the survival of the species," says Loy.

"Adolescents are just developmentally getting to the place where they are beginning to face adult responsibilities and look at the world in adult ways. So they seek out these frightening experiences. ... Maybe they're unconsciously trying to get themselves ready to be adults," Loy says.

And often kids' enjoyment of horror movies is really about relationships. "This is something they do together, a social event."

-- To make sense of evil. Adult fear-seekers are sometimes trying to understand humanity's dark side. Pennsylvania prison psychologist Glenn D. Walters has written about the "societal concern." It causes people to see movies such as "Silence of the Lambs," which in 1991 played on a societal fear of serial killers.

-- To relieve tension. Scary movies also might be like the proverbial man who bangs his head against a wall because it feels great when he stops: The relief following the terror was worth all the suffering. This builds on Aristotle's ideas about catharsis -- that we can use a horror movie to release emotional tension.

-- To see justice served. This "dispositional alignment," Walters wrote in the Journal of Media Psychology in 2004, explains why "people seem to enjoy violence in horror movies when it is directed against those they believe are deserving of such treatment." Lately, this might be called the "Inglorious Basterds" explanation: This time, the Nazis pay dearly.

-- To feel less helpless in the face of real fears. Exposure to contrived fear, such as in watching a murder film, "can give (a person) a sense of mastery over other generally similar fears such as robbery, assault, rape, murder or harm to treasured loved ones," says James Schaller, highly published Naples child and adult psychiatrist.

If fear is experienced over and over, onscreen or otherwise, it makes a person stronger in the face of real threats.

-- For the date-night appeal. Among a young adult audience, reaction to a horror movie may be strongly linked to sex appeal.

In a study of 36 pairs of male and female students, Dolf Zillman and colleagues at Indiana University found that the more distressed a woman at a scary movie was, the more attractive her date found her; conversely, the less distressed the man was, the more attractive his date found him to be.

This is now known as "snuggle theory" -- something Street has noticed.

Street, 20, says he enjoys it when Dellipaoli gets scared and clings to him, and he has been known to provoke her during a movie to heighten the effect. Although Dellipaoli, 19, says she used to hate horror movies, she allows Street to "drag" her to them.

Street is happy to oblige. "I can't wait to see 'Stepfather,'" he says.

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