Psychology of Horror Movies
“Oh, the terrible struggle that I have had against sleep so often of late; the pain of the sleeplessness, or the pain of the fear of sleep, and with such unknown horror as it has for me! How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads; to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams.”
– Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Vampires, werewolves, witches and ghosts are all main characters in horror films that we love to hate. While horror as a genre might not be as popular -“The Silence of the Lambs” is the only horror movie ever to win an Oscar for best picture – as action, sci-fi or rom-coms, it has an alluring quality for the sensation seekers among us.
Dr. Steven Schlozman who is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard University suggests in his TedxNashville Talk that horror movies are mirrors through which we see the dark aspects residing within us. According to Schlozman, horror movies not only bring us closer to each other but also prime us to think about the big questions around racism, sexism and the many injustices that affect us all.
What makes horror attractive?
There are many reasons why horror lures people in. Dolf Zillman’s excitation transference theory posits that suspense or the build up to a threat is what makes horror movies enjoyable for viewers. The elimination of the threat, suspense resolution, then elicits euphoria from viewers. However, not all horror movies reach a neat conclusion. In fact, some may purposefully leave the ending a mystery and threat unresolved.
In 1991, Dr. Ron Tamborini from Michigan State University proposed that people find horror movies enjoyable simply for the thrill of it. If you have ever watched a scary movie, you know the hair-rising eerie feeling all too well. It seems that what makes horror so thrilling is the fact that it affects us not just psychologically but physiologically as well.
There is evidence to suggest that horror movies trigger a fight-or-flight response in us. This response may manifest as shivering, trembling, screaming, startling and even closing the eyes to avoid seeing a gory scene. According to a study by Professor Joanne Cantor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2004, sleep disturbances and anxiety are common among students who watch horror films. In this study, some students also reported fear of swimming in lakes and avoiding camps after watching scary movies.
A recipe for the perfect scream
Do horror films provide an alternate reality in which we come face to face with our worst fears?
What do horror movies do so perfectly that makes us want to scream as if we are the main character in the movie? It is the sound that is used throughout the movie that makes us jump out of our seat at the right time. The so-called “jump scare” is an auditory trope that is used when the director wants to startle us after a period of silence. The frightening music also adds more to the suspense by keeping viewers on their toes – or even out of the room in some cases.
If you are someone who seeks sensation and loves suspense, you might find horror movies really enjoyable. However, that does not mean that you laugh your way through these movies. The experience may be scary but what keeps you coming back to these movies might be something that you figure out after you watch them.
Do you like horror movies?
- 1. Martin G. N. (2019). (Why) Do You Like Scary Movies? A Review of the Empirical Research on Psychological Responses to Horror Films. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2298. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02298
- 2. Zillmann, D. (1996). “The Psychology of Suspense in Dramatic Exposition” in Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations. eds. Vorderer P., Wulff H. J., Friedrichsen M. (New York: Routledge).
- 3. Tamborini, R. (1991). “Responding to horror: Determinants of Exposure and Appeal” in Responding to the Screen: Reception and reaction processes. eds. Bryant J., Zillmann D. (Hillsdale, NJ: LEA; ), 305–328
- 4. Harris, R. J., Hoekstra, S. J., Scott, C. L., Sanborn, F. W., Karafa, J. A., Brandenburg, J. D. (2000). Young Men’s and Women’s Different Autobiographical Memories of the Experience of Seeing Frightening Movies on a Date. Media Psychol. 2, 245–268. 10.1207/S1532785XMEP0203_3
- 5. Cantor, J. (2004). “I’ll never have a clown in my house”—Why Movie Horror Lives On. Poetics Today 25, 283–304. 10.1215/03335372-25-2-283