Why Do We Watch Horror?
Horror is one of the most enduringly popular genres of cinema. Glancing over the lists of highest grossing films by year, it is inevitable that – after the barrage of superhero and animation features – a litter of twisted flicks will be some of the biggest earners. This means that local multiplexes will be flooded most nights, by people of all background looking for their next macabre thrill, especially on Halloween.
Even before cinema, ghost stories and Gothic fiction were some of the most widely circulated works ever created. For some reason, we really enjoy terrifying ourselves, with this continually fascinating psychologists, and provoking the question: Why do we watch horror?
One reason, as obvious as it seems, is that we relish the thrill. Research conducted by Dr. Thomas Straube at the Freidrich Schiller University of Jena in 2010 displayed, through the use of scans, that the most active parts of our brains when watching horror films are: the visual cortex (where we process visual information), the insular cortex (concerned with self-awareness) and the dorsal-medial pre-frontal cortex (the area of the brain connected with attention, planning and finding solutions).
Taking into consideration the limits of scientific testing of this kind, we can posit that it is necessarily the fear that attracts us to horror. But also the appeal of “What if?” as the films activate thoughts of our own survival instinct.
Why does the scared girl always run to her bedroom? Why doesn’t she drop kick the murderer and run for the front door?
Following on from this, Dr. Marvin Zuckerman believes that seeking to watch horror films corresponds highly with his research on what he dubbed as “the sensation-seeking trait.” Zuckerman says that thrill seekers enjoy the heightened awareness produced through intense situations, and it is a “morbid curiosity” that leads them to a horror film. When the brain is met with this intensity, the dopamine hormone is produced and this is what causes the giddy thrill that can last long after the credits have rolled. Ever been kept aware, replaying a horror film? Well now, you know why.
The sociological drive behind horror is just as intriguing. John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing) in an interview with the Writer’s Guide of America described it as “such a venerable, such an adaptable genre”, horror evolves with society and realises our common fears in highly creative, and often twisting ways.
The mutated figures of monster films of the 1950s reflect a fear of the effect of nuclear weapons. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is said to be a manifestation of the distrust of authority figures. Not to mention the current popularity of a zombie apocalypse. This suggests horror as a way to explore cultural issues both for the creators and viewers.
The “safe space” of the cinema or living room is a place in which we, naturally, find comfort and are able to confront these thoughts and process them without actually putting ourselves in danger. Don’t worry, no zombie apocalypse…yet.
Mixed up in the horror genre is an unfortunate conservative streak where often promiscuous teens and others stepping outside of what society deems as “acceptable” are punished – in the most gruesome ways by a psychotic killer. Due to this, there is a belief that we view horror as a way to reaffirm our values.
It can also be argued that horror is a great social experience, and has a subculture of devoted fans. Whether an audience is scared to death, or they laugh-out-loud at the over-dramatic performances, it’s fair to say that horror is a very complex genre.
Though we may never know why we truly love a good scare, we can be sure that horror films have provided us with some of the most memorable moments of cinema (whether we’d like to forget them or not), and will continue to do so.