Horror movies are a natural part of the cinematic genre. They’re especially popular in October, when Halloween and the fresh frights are on the minds of thrill-seekers and haunted-house fanatics alike. Watching blood, gore and horrible monsters on large screens triggers something primitive within humans, something that’s hard for many to decipher.
Being afraid and more importantly, the enjoyment that comes with feeling afraid stands for some as the perfect way to enjoy Friday nights, especially if they’re the 13th, while others balk at the mere idea. For humans, fear serves as a survival instinct, the flight-or-fight instinct kicking in so that the species might survive. Yet, there’s something inviting about horror and danger, especially if it’s on a television screen. What is it about horror that attracts us so?
The Psychology of Fear
Circumstances and situations that generate a strong emotional response are easiest to remember. It’s why we’re able to remember funny or embarrassing stories —those memories have strong emotional attachments for us. The science, of course, is far more complicated than that. Emotional responses release certain chemicals and hormones in the brain. These chemical and hormonal reactions generate a response in us. How that response gets interpreted depends solely on the individual, and the manner in which that individual deals with that response is telling about how he or she might react in regards to high-stress situations, like getting on a roller coaster or watching a scary movie late at night.
Of course, there’s a difference between genuine horror and the staging of a high intensity moment that feels like horror. In the former, there is the very real possibility of pain or damage to the self. The latter only partially creates this feeling in order to stimulate the release of those wonderful feel-good chemicals in the brain. After the fear comes the wave of euphoria. To truly enjoy horror, there must be a firm and distinct separation between what’s going on in a film or television series, and the environment surrounding whoever’s doing the watching. In short, there must be a safe place from which to watch.
In both circumstances, imagined and genuine terror, the brain releases chemicals in response to the threat it has perceived. This is the flight-or-fight survival mechanic, a surge of adrenaline, endorphins and the feel-good chemical dopamine. However, in a secure and safe environment, while the body may go through the motion of being terrified, the brain is able to assess the actual danger levels of a circumstance and understand that there is no actual threat.
Dr. Margee Kerr, the staff sociologist at the Pittsburg haunted house ScareHouse and a professor at Robert Morris University, explains “Haunted houses are great at this—they deliver a startle scare by triggering one of our senses with different sounds, air blasts, and even smells. I’ve seen the process thousands of times from behind the walls in ScareHouse—someone screams and jumps and then immediately starts laughing and smiling. It’s amazing to observe.”
For many, there’s no greater joy than the adrenaline pumping through the veins as the flight-or-fight instinct rushes to take over. For others, that wild surge of adrenaline when faced with such anxiety is as unwanted as a hole in the head. Intense situations, especially those that initiate feelings of fear or anxiety in a person, invoke the flight-or-fight reaction in people as the brain processes a perceived threat. That same reaction can occur when watching horror films as they seek to imitate the circumstances that create fear and tension. After all, you’re watching a masked murderer sneak up on some unsuspecting victim—why shouldn’t you feel anxious, while peering over your own shoulder to make sure you’re not being followed? While some find this feeling absolutely unwelcome and want nothing to do with the thundering of adrenaline in the ears, there are those who revel in the feeling. Science may explain part of the reason.
Research from Dr. David Zald, a professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, shows that individuals have different chemical responses to thrilling situations. While some may tense up or become anxious—such as those who typically shy away from intense situations—others may revel in the natural high that such circumstances provide. These are individuals who react most strongly to the levels of dopamine that are released during intense or thrilling situations. This fundamental difference in the method through which the brain operates and responds to certain chemicals serves as at least a starting point for understanding why certain individuals enjoy horror-intense moments and others simply do not.
But enjoying horror is more than just how the brain makes someone feel during the situation. For many, it’s a matter of how they feel afterwards that creates the urge to be filled with terror. Overcoming an intense challenge is a rewarding experience for some, and instills within us a sense of confidence and accomplishment. For those who seek the thrills of terror, perhaps it’s that feeling of accomplishment that drives them to engage in otherwise stressful, anxiety-riddled situations and circumstances, like being able to get through a really scary movie.
Good vs Evil
In many horror films, there’s a fundamentally good protagonist that’s set against a decidedly evil antagonist. The protagonist can be a man, woman or child or anything else under the sun—that’s irrelevant. The evil is what’s more important, and oftentimes it takes on some demonic shape or form with supernatural powers used to harm and hurt others. We recognize these powers as metaphors for real-life situations, and are engaged in the story. We cheer for the protagonist and are delighted when the hero overcomes whatever evil was threatening them.
The relatable good protagonist is another reason people like horror films. The film serves as a rewarding experience for the viewer because it reaffirms his or her goodness. Being able to relate to the protagonist determines a level of humanity that was lacking from the evil of the film. For some, knowing that they are good is reason enough to enjoy horror films. When you sign up for one of the Charter Internet Plans you can watch a lot of great horror flicks.