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The Psychology of Horror: Do You Like Scary Movies?

Darcie spends her free time going down research rabbit holes and occasionally writing down what she finds.

I love horror movies, and I know I'm not alone in that. What is it about horror movies that draws so many people in, and at the same time, repels so many other people away? Well, there really isn't a simple answer to that, and perhaps not even an answer at all.


Many studies have been conducted into the effects of horror movies on viewers, and thus, many theories have been proposed to explain the observed reactions of those viewers. In 2005, Cynthia A. Huffner and Kenneth J. Levine conducted a meta-analysis of existing studies, and concluded that they had found four common theories to explain why certain people enjoy horror movies.

The Excitation Transfer Theory

The most famous theory proposed is by Dolf Zillmann. Zillmann proposed the excitation transfer paradigm. According to "The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan," an article by Katie Heaney, this theory "states that viewers who experience 'fearful apprehension about deplorable events that threaten liked protagonists' also then experience heightened enjoyment when those threats are satisfyingly resolved."

Zillmann's theory also states that movies with "unhappy endings" produce less enjoyment for the audience. This theory is also an extension of another that suggests that people watch horror for the feeling of catharsis, similar to a theory on why people enjoy violent video games.

Further explaining the excitation transfer process, during this experience, a person's heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration all go up after watching a scary movie. Kaitlin Vogel, in her article "The Psychology Behind Why We Love Scary Movies," writes, "When the film ends, this physiological arousal lingers. And any positive emotions you experience (such as having fun with your friends) are intensified. Rather than paying attention to what scared you, you remember having a good time. People tend to subconsciously associate their intense physical reaction as a rush of excitement, which keeps them coming back for more."


Ron Tamborini's Theory

Another theory on why people enjoy horror was proposed by Ron Tamborini, who argued in a 1996 paper that people who like horror movies have less empathy. He states that viewers with high levels of empathy will not enjoy horror movies because "they react negatively to the suffering of others."

However, this theory doesn't really hold up as a generalization. As Heaney writes, "Fantastical horror, it turns out, is different; when heavily violent and torture-based movies were eliminated from these studies, the inverse correlation between empathy and enjoyment dropped."

Huffner and Levine's third found theory was a variation on Tamborini's - that people enjoy horror that features situations they don't believe could ever happen to themselves.

Three Traits of Horror Fans

The fourth theory found by Huffner and Levine lists three common traits that many researchers believe horror fans share - sensation-seeking, above-average aggression, and maleness.

Of course, this theory doesn't really hold up either. Just ask all the women who like horror, such as myself.

As might be obvious, none of the four common theories revealed by Huffner and Levine seem to give a complete or accurate explanation for the enjoyment of horror movies.


Deirdre Johnston's Theory

In a 1995 issue of Human Communication Research, Dr. Deirdre Johnston identified four reasons for why people like watching horror movies - gore watching, thrill watching, independent watching, and problem watching. These four reasons are all discussed in relation to the disposition of viewers.

In Johnston's theory, gore watchers have low empathy, and are highly sensation seeking. Males specifically, she asserts, tend to strongly identify with the killer in these cases. Thrill watchers have high empathy and are highly sensation seeking, but they identify with the victims and enjoy the suspense. Independent watchers have high empathy for the victims and "high positive effect for overcoming fear." Problem watchers have high empathy, "but were characterized by negative effect (particularly a sense of helplessness)."

Physiological Reaction

Some psychologists have found that watching a horror movie can cause the same physiological changes as a fight-or-flight response. In 2003, a study found that healthy people developed "a significantly higher" heart rate and a higher concentration of stress hormones when they watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as opposed to sitting in a quiet room.

Sarah Rose Cavanagh, in her article "What Kind of Person Loves Scary Movies?," writes, "The question of why people like horror has been well-discussed, and tend to hinge on the idea that some people enjoy the rush of adrenaline in a protected atmosphere or the sharp contrast between terror and then relief." Cavanagh goes on to say, "Holding a dark mirror up to our deepest fears can be a comforting validation. Then the lights come up and we can kiss our date and laugh with our friends. Fear and relief, death and life, loss and friendship - the dramatic interplay between these threatening fictions and the comfort of reality can be a soothing gift. But depending on our personalities and views of the world, only some of us appreciate this gift."

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A Gender or Age Factor?

An article by Andy Luttrell titled "Halloween Psychology: Why People Like Scary Movies" suggests that generally, men like horror more than women. Luttrell writes, "Connecting these findings with contemporary theories of gender in psychology, some have suggested this gender difference may have its origins in a socialization process." He goes on to say, "When it comes to scary movies, boys might be able to use those films as a chance to prove their masculinity. If they can show that they're able to remain calm and collected in the face of a frightening experience, they show that they're living up to society's expectations."

In this same article, Luttrell writes that, "Some evidence shows that kids aren't as able to find enjoyment in frightening experiences as adolescents. It takes some learning and development to cope with negative experiences. As a result, enjoyment of scary movies tends to increase with age, among children."

However, the evidence only appears to apply to children, as data suggests that in adults, younger people tend to enjoy horror more.

In "The Psychology of Scary Movies," an article by Jason Bailey, it is speculated that horror represents a sort of taboo for children. According to Bailey, when children start to watch horror and get enjoyment out of it, they're actually enjoying the fact that they're not supposed to be watching it. It is a form of thrill-seeking because of the taboo nature.

Scott Weinberg, a film critic specializing in horror, says of this theory, "You will see something different in Halloween if you watch it at age 15, and then at age 30. As a kid, you watch Halloween and you're one of those babysitters or you're one of those kids, and you just wanna stay away from the killer. Now, when you watch it as a grown-up, you might look at it like one of those kids' parents, and you have a completely different perspective on horror."


Other Theories

In his article "Why Do We Like Watching Scary Films?," Mark D. Griffiths quotes an explanation from Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Utrecht. Goldstein states, "People go to horror films because they want to be frightened or they wouldn't do it twice. You choose your entertainment because you want it to affect you."

In a 2004 paper in the Journal of Media Psychology, Dr. Glenn Walters identified three factors that make horror movies appealing to their audience - tension, relevance, and unrealism. Walters concluded that people will enjoy seeing situations that are fictional - particularly those that they would be disgusted by in reality - because they are able to use the unreality to create a psychological distance between themselves and the situation.

David Skal, a cultural historian, argues that horror films reflect the audience's societal fears.

Another likely theory is simply morbid fascination.

Griffiths says of all of these explanations, "Basically, none of these theories fully explain why we love watching scary films. Different people like watching for different reasons and no theory has been put forward that explains everyone's motives and reasoning."

In Bailey's article, Margee Kerr, who proudly identifies herself as a sociologist who studies fear, puts forward her own ideas on why people like horror. She says, "So we really do understand each other by recreating their experience in ourselves - and that's the key to humanity, to empathy, to connection and compassion. Horror movies do allow us to connect with these different types of characters, and in doing so, think about who we are."

Kerr goes on to suggest that people also like the sense of control they can feel while viewing horror movies. She says, "We know we're gonna die, we know these things happen, so we can't ignore it - but we need a less real confrontation with such scary things."

Filmmaker Sheldon Wilson seems to support Kerr's claims, saying, "Studies have shown, during times of war or country-wide stress, that's when horror really thrives, because people are looking for an outlet. And that gives them the outlet. I'm not sure if it's the going-and-being-scared aspect of it, or if it's the sense of feeling safe afterwards, which is the comforting aspect of that."


Finally, in an article on The Daily Beast by Sharon Begley titled "Why Our Brains Love Horror Movies: Fear, Catharsis, a Sense of Doom," Stuart Fischoff, a professor emeritus of psychology at California State University in Los Angeles, says, "If we have a relatively calm, uneventful lifestyle, we seek out something that's going to be exciting for us, because our nervous system requires periodic revving, just like a good muscular engine."

Bizarrely, Fischoff also states in this article that, "Horror is almost no one's favorite genre." So I guess just call me Almost No One from now on.


Benjamin Bailey, in his article "Why Do We Love Horror?" for The Nerdist, states, "We want to show everyone that death is in our control, not the other way around. It's a way to give order to the universe, to reign in chaos." He goes on to say that, "Horror puts a face on something that is otherwise faceless. It makes death and destruction follow a set of rules."

Bailey also says what's possibly my favorite thing I found in my research: "If we dissect horror too much we miss one very important aspect: it looks really cool."

I totally agree. Just watch one of my favorite horror movie scenes ever and try to say otherwise.

Could the answer really be as simple as a cool factor, though? Maybe, or perhaps it's simple in a different way.

Maybe it's just like Stephen King famously wrote in Danse Macabre. "We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones."

After all this, I still don't have a decisive answer as to why I personally enjoy horror movies. I just know that I like them, and that I'm not alone in that. I suppose that's the most important thing.

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