Why We Enjoy Horror | Dissecting Fear

“Where there is no imagination – there is no horror.”
― Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Pri says:

    Pretty cool Eduardo! I now start to understand what goes on on that crazy mind of yours and why people love scary things so much! I actually may identify a bit with the category that ” scores high on sensation seeking scale” … 😉 REALLY cool post!;)

    • eduardo says:

      You are pretty cool for coming by and reading Pri, thank you! That’s the dilemma, you’re a person that seeks high sensations but doesn’t enjoy horror, I’m gooing to keep digging for the next installments of Dissecting Fear see if I can uncover more information.

  2. Great Post! As for me, it is still such a mystery why some people prefer horror to comedy or drama of our life?=) In my opinion, it is a matter of getting new excitement or thrill from our life, with scary movies we sort of replace those missed moments of surprise!

    • eduardo says:

      Aiya, thank you for reading! See one of these movies with me and you’ll find out! It’s not replacing missing moments of excitement, it’s adding more.

  3. upcycledself says:

    Eduardo; I related to Marvin Zuckerman’s proposal in 1979 about the Sensation Seeking Scale as a former thrill seeker ( flying, down hill skiing, open English sport cars …) I found I missed the rush but I find it in Horror or rapid fire action films. Funny though, I do not really like Roller Coasters but that has more todo with a healthy suspicion about ongoing maintenance!
    Scream on!

    • eduardo says:

      Hahaha, thanks for reading Brian! Such is the mystery with roller coasters and sensation seeking, science is yet to find out a real correlation, which won’t really happen until we fully understand the human brain. Scream on indeed my friend!

  4. […] theories and arguments that we discussed last time, the fact remains that we don’t really know why we enjoy horror. What we do know to some extent, is the things that happen in our minds when we experience fear and […]

  5. Sarah says:

    Hey Eduardo – wonderful piece!! While I now understand those who love horror, what about those of us who …aren’t quite in love with it? Except for L’aldila, of course. 🙂

  6. It’s the stimulation isn’t it? When we cannot obtain it on a daily basis, we look for ways we can get it artificially. Obviously we don’t get scared on a daily basis so I guess the feeling of horror is a novel experience to our sensations.

    • eduardo says:

      You are very right Robin! We want to feel alive, and what better way than to face death? Especially if deep down we know there’s no real danger at all. Thanks for reading.

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