Why Horror Terrifies Us | Dissecting Fear

The nature of horror fans is a mystery to most people who are not into the genre. Why do we enjoy it? Why do we cheer for the killer? Why do we crave more?

Charmful Dead Things - Dissecting Fear - Horror Movie Posters

In a series of articles called Dissecting Fear, I’ll shed some light on these questions using the science that answers them. The goal is not only to have others understand us but to know ourselves better.

As a plus, next time that someone stumbles upon titles like I Spit On Your Grave, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Devil’s Rejects, while looking through your movie collection and you get the classic: “What is wrong with you? ” you can just send these articles over to them.



“Horror shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory,
and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.”
― Clive Barker


Today we’re going to look at…

Why Horror Terrifies Us

Let’s start by defining horror.  According to Dictionary.com, horror is:

an overwhelming feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying or revolting”.

We humans love to get this feeling. Some of us go to amusement parks to ride roller coasters to get it, others go to haunted houses to be scared by someone hidden in the dark. We also turn to movies, TV, books and other media to frighten us.

Phantom Manor - Disneyland Paris

A good example of our fascination with horror is an accident on a highway, whenever there’s one we slow down in our cars to have a look. Dead bodies on a road are magnets for the curious, not just because we are fascinated but also owing to the fact that we are trying to learn from what occurred. At an instrumental level, the presence of death sparks in us three questions:

– What happened to this person?
– How did it happen?
– What can I do to prevent such a thing from happening to me?

If we look at these questions through the lens of human psychology, we realize that everything that frightens us is built up of five basic fears.


 1.- Extinction

Our fear of ceasing to exist – in other words, a fear of death. Post-apocalyptic stories are so engaging because in them humankind survives its biggest fear. Children of Men and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road use it.

2.- Mutilation

The fear of losing a part of our body or having our bodies or integrity violated. Fear of bugs crawling all over you is a great example that is very well exploited in William Friedkin’s Bug, where the protagonist becomes obsessed to a point of isolating herself in a “sealed” room.


3.- Loss Of Autonomy

This fear can be physical, social, and psychological. It means the fear of being paralyzed, restricted, imprisoned, or otherwise controlled by circumstances beyond a person’s control. The fear felt by a groom or bride on their wedding day, “fear of commitment,” is an example.

4.- Separation

Fear of rejection, the loss of connectedness, of becoming unwanted, disrespected, or devalued by others. Examples can be found in Tarkovsky sci-fi classic Solaris and Scorsese’s masterpiece, Taxi Driver.


5.- Ego-death

The fear of the shattering or disintegration of our self-constructed sense of lovability, capability, and worthiness. Humiliation and shame are perfect examples.

By exploiting these fears in different combinations, filmmakers and writers are able to terrify their audiences.


Check back soon for the next entry in the Dissecting Fear series where I’ll be looking at the theories behind our fascination with horror, and will talk about a few scientific studies conducted on the matter.  Stay scared!

This is the place where I happily share my experiences and passions.

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  1. […] The novel won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in May of 2015 and much to the author’s surprise, has now been nominated for the British Fantasy Award on the Best Horror Novel category. In reality it isn’t that perplexing at all, considering that the whole narrative touches on some of humanity’s most basic fears, including extinction and separation (For more about that, you can read Why Horror Terrifies Us). […]

  2. Wow, an interesting connection you outlined, between horror movies and our basic psychological fears. How do you think is there a reason why some people chose precisely this type of movies?

    • eduardo says:

      Thanks for reading Aiya! That is THE question I’m trying to answer, please come back for the next Dissecting Fear to find out, I’m doing a ton or research about it.

  3. Megan says:

    Great post Eduardo! Its odd that we crave fear, terror and the feeling of helplessness. Perhaps we crave it because it is a way to explore a feeling from our everyday lives. my favourite movie genre is suspense thrillers, so i cant wait to read more from you and your blog.