Ah, October. My favorite time of the year. Where the ghouls, goblins and ghosts make their way out into the mainstream and many of us fill our month with horror movies and horror show marathons (thank you Haunting of Hill House). But, why do we do it? Why do we like to be scared?
Better yet, why do many people not like to be scared?
It’s quite strange isn’t it?
Fear, like art, seems to be extremely subjective.
Some feel the 1978 slasher Halloween is terrifying, while others think it is hilarious.
Some can’t sleep at night because of Freddy Krueger, while others brush him off completely.
Personally, psychological fear has always unnerved me the most with shows like Sharp Objects and Stephen King’s IT discovering my deeper fears that I didn’t know existed, until they were exposed in a creative medium.
So, again, why do we do it?
According to an article on Psychology Today and a 2004 paper in the Journal of Media Psychology by Dr. Glenn Walters, “The three primary factors that make horror films alluring are tension (generated by suspense, mystery, terror, shock and gore), relevance (that may relate to personal relevance, cultural meaningfulness, the fear of death, etc.), and (somewhat paradoxically given the second factor) unrealism.”
Another study carried out by Haidt, McCauley and Rozin in 1994, involved showing a number of college students three different documentary videos including the slaughtering of a cow, a monkey being hammered in the head and a child’s facial skin being turned inside out for surgery. In the study, 90% of the students didn’t finish the films!
But, when questioning the students on why they would then pay money to see a horror film with more shock and gore, McCauley found that many of the viewers feel a “sense of control by placing psychological distance between them and the violent acts they have witnessed.”
He claimed that since many students knew the horror movies were not real, they could distance themselves from the shock value of it all. There is also evidence (Hoekstra, Harris & Helmick, 1999) “that young viewers who perceive greater realism in horror films are more negatively affected by their exposure to horror films than viewers who perceive the film as unreal.
If this is the case, it would make sense why the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre haunted me to my core. I had just worked a double shift at Dewey’s Pizza and was ready for a nice relaxing night with a couple cold Guinness, some slices of ‘Za and a great scary movie. It was a chilly night in October and my roommate was out of town for the weekend. So naturally, I decided to watch what is heralded as one of the scariest movies of all time, alone, in the dark, at my own apartment.
As the movie progressed, the fear began to seep into my pores.
I felt like one of these poor kids caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When the film ended, I sat in silence for 15 minutes. Didn’t move. Didn’t text anyone. I just sat there motionless unable to comprehend what I just saw. Now, some people may say this is dramatic, but for me, the fear was that powerful. I was scared to go to the bathroom (and believe me after 3-4 cold Guinness, I had to). My room was upstairs as well and I don’t remember if I made it up there that evening or not. I’m 90% sure I slept right there on that couch after quickly using the restroom, brushing my teeth and hoping to God I could close my eyes for the night. Morning would come soon enough.
Maybe, deep down, we are attracted to the darkness of it all. It’s quite possible.
But, I think it’s more than that.
1.) We love to see people defeat their demons.
With stories like IT and The Haunting of Hill House, we see kids and their adult selves forever affected by their childhood traumas. The only way they can defeat them is by facing these lifelong traumas head on. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, we love seeing Nancy stand up for herself and her friends to kill Freddy Krueger and put him back into Hell for good (or do we?)
2.) We love to feel like we are in control.
Throughout our lives, we are hit with questions like, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” or, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” These questions give off the false narrative that we are in control of each and every step in our lives. Can we control some things? Absolutely.
But the illusion that many hold is that we can control it all.
What if I get into a car wreck? A loved one dies of cancer? Get fired from a big job? Or, what if a fu*&^%$ tornado hits my house?
With horror films, the audience loves to feel as if they can control the characters and tell them where to go next. They love the safety of sitting on their couch/movie theater seat and playing puppet master. But, when the film ends and the credits roll, all bets are off. There’s no one else to control and that is scary. Fear takes over and we start to think of all the different scenarios in our head, conjuring up a whole slew of death, destruction, violence and fear.
3.) We love the music.
The psychology of music on human behavior is a thing of wonder and the best horror films are always remembered for their haunting scores. The Exorcist, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, the list goes on and on. Music has a unique way of making us feel emotions that we may never even knew existed.
Certain songs evoke certain stories we contrive in our heads and when we listen to movie soundtracks, we can often see the scene right there in front of our eyes. Or, better yet, we have the ability to construct a completely different scene in which this music would fit right in.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some scary movies that don’t utilize much of a score which actually may make the film scarier (Texas Chainsaw comes to mind), but as humans, we are drawn to the primitiveness of music and all that it can do.
4.) Fear is extremely primitive.
Think about it for a second. Fear is one of the most primitive instincts in our bag. Researchers at the University of Exeter and Canterbury Christchurch University found that, “The subconscious has a bigger impact on our response to danger than previously thought and that humans share a primitive response to fear with other animals, despite our ability to consciously assess danger. All our conscious assessments fly out the window when danger rears its head.”
So, if we compare these statements to the studies conducted by Haidt, McCauley and Rozin, a horror movie might be the only barrier between our fear and conscious decision-making. Think about it for a second. How many times have you watched a scary movie only to find yourself yelling at the screen and telling a character to “Run!” “Grab the knife!” “Make sure they’re dead!” “Check on the kids!”
I mean, the list goes on and on. We all do it or have been ‘guilty’ of this before. But, do we really know what we would do in any situation we haven’t been in before? HELL NO!
Take this story for instance. Awhile back, my girlfriend was home alone at her dad’s house in broad daylight. As she sat in her room, she heard a man whistle and make his way up the steps. She quickly became terrified. In her head, a man was coming up the steps to kill her as she was smack dab in the middle of a home invasion.
So, what did she do?
Well, as an audience member, we would have probably been throwing our popcorn at the screen because she didn’t do ‘what we would have done in that situation.’
Fear reared its nasty head and my girlfriend was completely paralyzed from head-to-toe. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t call 911.
She couldn’t do anything!
She finally mustered up the courage to call her dad and ask if anyone was supposed to be in the house that morning and he replied by telling her that “Yes, the exterminator would be there that day.”
Just like that, fear set in and her fear turned into paralysis which controlled her brain, thoughts and even her limbs. What would you have done? Trick question…you have no idea!
So, that brings me to my next question…what is your favorite scary movie? Do you like psychological thrillers, slashers, haunted houses, realistic ones, or don’t put me anywhere near a scary movie ever!
Respond with some of your favorites in the comment section below and check out this list of the "Top 50 Best Horror Movies of All Time” here: