Happy Halloween! This is a video essay looking at why people are so attracted to horror movies, and the artistic and psychological insights that the horror genre can provide.
Why do people watch horror films? It’s a fair question, I think. Why would any sane person seek out something that they know is going to frighten or disturb them? Is it the sign of an unhealthy mind, an unhealthy society? Few would dispute that the horror genre has played an essential role in the evolution of cinema—as a narrative medium, as well as an exercise in formal and technical craft—from the German Expressionism of Nostferatu (1922), to the Academy Award winning The Exorcist (1973) and Silence of the Lambs (1991). There are countless elements of horror that a film critic can appreciate – the delicate symphony of visuals and sound necessary to draw in the viewer, capture their nerves, and elicit a physical response, is truly a dazzling example of filmmaking potential.
But many continue to query why filmgoers are so attracted to experiencing this seemingly negative emotion. The same could be asked of other genres, of course, such as comedy films, which viewers also seek out in order to cause an involuntary bodily reaction – laughter. The difference, however, is that laughter is perceived to a positive, healthy emotion. There are also different styles of comedy, with something like satire recognisably requiring a certain intellectual investment from the audience, as opposed to the impulsive enjoyment of slapstick. However, I would argue that the horror genre also contains varying levels of audience engagement, from the somatic jump-scare, to more psychologically complex and unnerving insinuations about the human condition.
Horror filmmakers are interested in exploring people’s fear of the unknown, of supernatural or grossly abnormal entities, and above all, of death, in all its confronting and inescapable incarnations. Unlike comparatively high-impact genres, such as action films, thrillers, or war dramas, the danger depicted in horror is not contextual. It is not merely a threat to the characters on the screen, a plot device to drive the narrative. The danger in horror films is universal. It manages to reach through the screen, and affect viewers in far more visceral, somatic ways. Horror imagery has a habit of getting underneath your skin, and staying with you long after the credits roll. To this day there are people who refuse to visit the beach, for fear that the shark from Jaws (1975) will emerge from the watery depths and devour them whole. The best horror films speak to something old and primal within the human psyche – be it the fear of possession (The Exorcist, 1973); the fear of voyeurism (Halloween, 1978); the fear of infiltration (Alien, 1979); the fear of isolation (The Shining, 1980); the fear of dehumanisation (The Terminator, 1984); the fear of consumption (Jurassic Park, 1993); the fear of vanishing (The Blair Witch Project, 1999); or the fear of enclosure (The Descent, 2005).
Early psychotherapists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung believed horror stories contained immense psychoanalytical value, because they touched on primordial archetypes residing within the collective unconscious (such as the mother, the shadow, and the animus), as well as its manifestation of the “uncanny,” which are recurring (strangely familiar) thoughts and feelings that have been repressed by the ego. Going back even further, the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that dramatic portrayals gave the audience “an opportunity to purge itself of certain negative emotions” (such as pent-up up frustration or aggression), a process which he referred to as “catharsis” (Dr Glenn Walters). While some contemporary sociologists concur with this theory, others believe the opposite is true, that media depictions of graphic violence and gore actually aggravate feelings of aggression, whilst exposing oneself to discordant experiences, such as humour, reduces negative emotions. Research indicates no clear consensus, but most likely, it depends on the individual, and how firmly they appreciate the division between fantasy and reality.
Horror films also absorb and reflect the social anxieties of a particular time and place, serving—as author Stephen King puts it—as a “barometer of those things which trouble the night thoughts of a whole society”. The most resonant horror films of the twentieth century have used supernatural forms to tease out the real-life bogeymen that haunt their audiences. For example, James Whales’ Frankenstein (1931) spoke to a fear of totalitarianism; Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954) exposed the terrors of nuclear war; and Don Seigel’s Invasion of The Body Snatchers (1956) examined the frenzied tide of communism and McCarthyism. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) confronted America with the horrors of the Vietnam War, while the public’s macabre fascination with serial killers was indulged by Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Some horror movies speak to specific civil tensions, while others operate on more universal, cross-cultural, and often psychologically evocative fears.
Horror films generate an emotional response from the viewer through four different modes: mystery, suspense, shock, and terror. In particular, King identifies terror as one of the purest and most vital emotions, because it taps into our evolutionary fight-or-flight instincts. Its impact is comparable to taking illicit drugs, as the brain is flooded with dopamine during the moments of fear. This rush of adrenalin is meant to assist us in life-threatening situations (as simulated by the film), providing our bodies with pain relief, and a powerful burst of energy. Rather than craving an external drug, horror fans become addicted to their own neurochemicals – not just the rush of danger, but the feeling of intense relief which follows a fright. For example, when a character in the film reaches a point of safety, or an agent of menace is neutralised, our brains perceive that a threat has passed, and our muscles relax. For people suffering from stress, anxiety or depression, this experience can be very cathartic, because it yields a torrent of emotions and simulates a feeling of relief which they are unable to find within themselves. It makes the viewer feel alive and alert.
Another factor that attracts people (especially young males) to horror films is idea of conquering or controlling fear. Even though the dangers depicted on-screen pose no actual harm, the ability to face them—to feel the hand of fear grip our chests, but not turn away or flee—gives us a sense of satisfaction. It makes us feel brave, and bravery adds to self-concept. It also has an evolutionary basis – as Neanderthals, members of the tribe who were willing to take risks and face dangers were more likely to succeed as hunters. Moreover, the idea of being able to represent our deepest fears aesthetically helps to contain and process them. Imagine if you could pause a nightmare with a remote control, or rewind and replay it ad nauseam until it was drained of all its initial potency. Horror films shed light on the things that scare us in the dark of night, the formless entities which congregate under our beds, outside our windows, and in the narrow corridors of our mind.
Questions have been raised, however, regarding the effects of horror cinema on the minds of the individual and the collective. Whatever artistic, psychoanalytic and sociological worth we can mine from horror, at the end of the day, it is still utilising images of violence and cruelty to entertain. The notion that normal, everyday people would derive enjoyment from the evisceration of human life is slightly troubling. Perhaps the question is not whether there is anything wrong with the filmgoers who seek these films out (after all, most people know the difference between real-life and the movies), but rather: how are these films altering their conceptions of self and society over time? Are they becoming desensitised to acts of murder and torture, disconnected from the value of living things? Just as horror films absorb the society in which they were created, do we absorb their images into our subconscious?
I don’t know the answer, and studies up until now have proved inconclusive. As a fan of cinema, I’m certainly not going to stop watching horror movies any time soon, but it’s something to consider. Perhaps the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said it best: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”