“Horror movies explore our deepest fears. It’s only natural that we’re fascinated and want to learn more.”
I never have to think twice when someone asks me what my favorite holiday is. Candy galore, carved pumpkins, haunted houses, crazy costumes, and best of all, scary movie marathons. What’s not to love about Halloween? It’s the one time of the year I get to indulge in my horror film obsession, which began when I was a little girl secretly watching Are You Afraid of the Dark? after school while my mom thought I was watching the Disney channel. It seems strange that a well-behaved seven-year-old who slept with a night-light would harbor a secret desire for all things creepy and unusual, but as it turns out, it’s more common than you’d think.
There are actually multiple reasons why we, as a society, love scary movies. The first is the exhilarating physical sensations we keep experiencing well after the movie ends.
The Excitation Transfer Process
In his study of the physical effects of watching horror films, Glenn Sparks, PhD, professor and associate head of the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, found that a person’s heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration increase after viewing a frightening film. This is known as the excitation transfer process.
When the film ends, this physiological arousal lingers, Sparks explained. 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.
If there is one movie that stayed with me long after it ended, it would have to be Paranormal Activity. The constant, building suspense and the ghosts creeping around the corner kept me on high alert even as I walked out of the theater. And maybe you were lucky enough to see the movie with a friend like mine, who lied and told me it was based on a true story and real footage. Needless to say, that certainly intensified the experience for me—I may have even dusted off the night-light that night.
A Tribal Rite of Passage
When Sparks looked specifically at the physiology of male viewers, he noticed an interesting trend: the more fear they experienced, the more they enjoyed the film. He believes the reason is that horror movies may be the modern equivalent of a tribal rite of passage. Conquering fears by watching a horror movie makes many men feel more masculine and brave.
“There’s a motivation males have in our culture to master threatening situations,” Sparks explains. “It goes back to the initiation rites of our tribal ancestors, where the entrance to manhood was associated with hardship.”Gore and violence are practically synonymous with the Saw and Nightmare on Elm Street series—films so gruesome and disturbing that even the most dedicated of horror fans have squirmed in their seats. According to Sparks’s theory, the men in the audience feel as though they are living vicariously through the characters, conquering their fear safely in front of a screen where no harm can actually come to them. While I’m not a man going through the tribal initiation rite, I’m definitely proud of myself if I can make it through one of those films without turning away or using the mute button on my remote. There is a sense of accomplishment when you make it to the end credits of a bloody slasher flick.
While we may have lost that element of real danger in modern society, we have discovered ways to tap into the primitive parts of our brains with the thrill-seeking movies we watch.
So why do we purposely put ourselves in situations to be scared? According to Paul J. Patterson, PhD, assistant professor of English and co-director of Medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation Studies at Saint Joseph’s University, humans have an innate need to understand the world around them, which includes our common fears. This is known as morbid fascination—the same curiosity that makes you stop and stare at a car crash.
“The horror genre addresses our archetypal fears,” Patterson said. “You can see throughout history how each generation has defined ‘horror,’ and it turns largely on the idea that something outside of our understanding is threatening us.”
Watching the ultimate serial killer movie, Silence of the Lambs, for example, left me questioning human nature and wondering what really goes on inside the brain of a murderer. How could any human being be that evil? Is an aggressive impulse to kill buried deep inside us all?
Horror fans are often people who are considered to be sensation-seeking personality types—people who enjoy the intense response and high arousal. This could mean you don’t have to skydive or bungee jump to get an adrenaline fix—in some cases, you might need to watch a scary movie.
“High sensation-seekers enjoy morbid curiosity in general and horror movies in particular,” said Marvin Zuckerman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Delaware.
While the monsters and storylines may have evolved over time, our fascination with fright remains the same. Scary movies put our fears into context, providing a safe outlet for us to explore and understand them. In the wise words of the horror master Stephen King, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”