Why We Enjoy Horror | Dissecting Fear
“Where there is no imagination – there is no horror.”
― Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
As I mentioned in the first article of the Dissecting Fear series, I’m attempting to shed some light on the nature of horror fans and fear itself by researching the science and studies that have been done about the subjects. On that first installment, we explored the reasons why we feel fear and how creators in the entertainment industry (Films, Books, TV, Comics, etc.) use them to their advantage.
Today we’re going to look at…
Why We Enjoy Horror
Why do we savour terrifying stories? And others can’t stand them? What makes us, crazy genre fans, have so much fun with them? Why do we actively seek more? The motivation for watching (or not) a horror film or reading (or not) a certain book, varies according to each person’s psychological capacity to process shock, terror and revolt.
Some very smart people have tried to explain this in the past and thousands of studies have been made on the subject, some basic theories have been proposed through the years that aim to explain our compulsion for stories that produce horror.
To start, we have the theory put forth by the Greek philosopher Aristotle who proposed that we as individuals are attracted to scary stories and violent dramatic plays because it gives us an avenue to purge our negative emotions – a process he called catharsis. Using this argument, we would watch violent movies and play violent video games to release our repressed feelings of aggression. We do not want to reach a breaking point like Michael Douglas’ character William Foster in Falling Down.
Another hypothesis by film scholar Noël Carroll enforces that we enjoy horror movies because the characters on screen getting killed actually deserve it. This ‘enjoyment’ is the product of curiosity and fascination for terrors existing outside of our everyday normal behavior. We all know that ‘Sleeping Bag Girl’ deserved to die at Jason’s hands on Friday the 13th Part VII!
Marvin Zuckerman, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Delaware, proposed in 1979 that the people who scored high in his Sensation Seeking Scale often reported a greater interest in exciting things like roller coasters, bungee jumping, and horror films. Researchers have found a correlation between thrill seeking and horror enjoyment, but it isn’t always significant and doesn’t explain why some people who hate scary films love roller coasters and vice versa.
Finally, David J. Skal an American cultural historian and horror analyst who’s an expert on the subject posits that horror films are a reflection of societal fears of each era.
By looking at the history of horror fiction we can find many examples for this theory: there are mutant monsters rising in the 1950s, Tarantula in 1957 and Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954, from our fear of the nuclear bombs. Zombies in the 1960s from the paranoia brought by the Vietnam War, Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and Dathdream in 1972. Nightmare on Elm Street in the 1980s as a mirror of America’s mistrust in authority figures stemming from the Watergate scandals and zombies again in the 2000s, World War Z by Max Brooks and AMC’s very popular TV series The Walking Dead, as a manifestation of society’s viral pandemic fears.
The fact is that many of us simply hunger for more excitement in our lives. We are bored with our jobs, burned out from our routine, stuck in patterns that are repeated over and over again. These habits are designed to keep us predictably safe, unlike the old days when life was full of danger from starvation and rapacious predators. Death was a companion to life expectancy, now we no longer partake in any kind of direct combat except in organized sports (baseball, soccer, football, etc.) or symbolic ways (negotiating a business deal), violence in general, and murder in particular – especially grotesque killing – is a form of escape from the drudgery of our lives. The distance from these feelings, in other eras so every-day familiar, makes us look for them in a different way.
Stay tuned for the next chapter of Dissecting Fear where I’ll be looking at what happens inside our bodies when we experience fear. Stay scared!
Tags: book, books, fear, horror, movies