Research Paper

For my research paper I decided to look into why people enjoy horror movies on a psychological level and why some people don’t.

“Most people who view horror movies understand that the filmed events are unreal, which furnishes them with psychological distance from the horror portrayed in the film. In fact, there is evidence that young viewers who perceive greater realism in horror films are more negatively affected by their exposure to horror films than viewers who perceive the film as unreal (Hoekstra, Harris, & Helmick, 1999).” Many different people have completely contrasting views when it comes to horror movies. Some could crave the adrenaline while others would hide behind whomever they are watching with until it is over. Some people might even be stuck dead in the middle of enjoying or feeling extremely uncomfortable during horror films and it just varies from person to person. There is a very simple psychological explanation for this bizarre difference in the liking or disliking of horror movies,
“According to research published by Dr. Deirdre Johnston in a 1995 issue of Human Communication Research into motivations for viewing graphic horror, there are four main different reasons for why we like watching horror movies (gore watching, thrill watching, independent watching and problem watching). These four reasons were also discussed in relation to various dispositional characteristics such as fearfulness, empathy, and sensation seeking. Dr. Johnston reported that: “The four viewing motivations are found to be related to viewers’ cognitive and affective responses to horror films, as well as viewers’ tendency to identify with either the killers or victims in these films.” More specifically she reported (i) gore watchers typically had low empathy, high sensation seeking, and [among males only] a strong identification with the killer, (ii) thrill watchers typically had both high empathy and sensation seeking, identified themselves more with the victims, and liked the suspense of the film, (iii) independent watchers typically had a high empathy for the victim along with a high positive effect for overcoming fear, and (iv) problem watchers typically had high empathy for the victim but were characterized by negative effect (particularly a sense of helplessness).”
There are a lot of different factors that go into the explanation but there are mainly three important ones. The three things that justify people loving horror movies are tension, relevance, and unrealism. A suspenseful or shocking scene are factors that can create tension. Tension might lead to someone enjoying the film more or hating it in the end. Relevance comes into play when the audience can relate by having a personal experience that is somewhat connected to what they are watching. People could also subconsciously connect personally with the people they are watching. If the people watching the film understand that this is not real and that it is very unlikely to happen to them they will presumably be more into it. Understanding that a film is not real puts a psychological distance between the audience and the horror.
Horror movies date all the way back to when the first movies were being made, over a 100 years ago. The first horror movie ever to be depicted was in 1895 which is the same year that the first film was ever made as well. This goes to show how horror movies have been very popular and extremely requested since the beginning of movie making history. The first horror movie ever made was about two minutes long and featured a monster. A lot of the first horror films being created all had vampires or other monsters of some sort pictured in the film. When horror movies were first becoming popular, it was difficult to do special effects to make the visuals really feel real like we have today. It wasn’t until 1920 when people considered it the first golden age of horror. In 1931, the two well-known movies Dracula and Frankenstein were created and this marks the era of universal horror films. The 30s also marks the first time people referred to these films as “horror”. This name has stuck with the genre since then and is universally well known. The “slasher genre” quickly became popular during the 1960s thanks to Alfred Hitchcock. This genre is when horror movies moved into showing a lot more realistic tragedies including murders, kidnappings, and stalkings. This is what drew a lot of people in because of the realism of all of it. People could really connect and empathize with the horror film. In the 1970s, Jaws became a hit and introduced the idea of scary shark movies but most importantly animal horror. This then introduced dinosaurs, dogs, and other sea creatures .Up until today, there have been countless successful horror films created which with thousands of different genres built into them. This goes to show that horror movies have never died and will probably live on for as long as we know.
Other researchers have brought three new and different reasons to the table which provide us with explanations on why people enjoy horror films so much. These reasons include fearfulness, empathy, and sensation seeking. Someone who does not have a lot of fears is more likely to enjoy scary movies compared to someone that gets freaked out about every little thing. This can explain why these types of movies typically do not target younger audiences as they tend to fear things a lot more than others. People who feel a lot of empathy towards the victim are more likely to enjoy these types of movies compared to someone who does not, “A second hypothesis involves individual empathy—specifically, and somewhat troublingly, that people with less of it like horror films more. Tamborini (1996) argued that viewers with high levels of empathy should dislike horror films because they react negatively to the suffering of others.”
Other people actually identify with the victim or even the killer and that is what drives them into the theater again and again. Watching horror films can also leave people with a feeling of overcoming fear and conquering something meaningful. This will result in continuing to go back to watch more scary movies searching for that same powerful feeling again. A lot of theories on horror films and why people enjoy them so much goes back to the idea of how you feel once you have finished watching the film, “According to Glenn Sparks, Ph.D, a professor and associate head of the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, one reason for the appeal is how you feel after the movie. This is called the excitation transfer process. Sparks’s research found that when people watch frightening films, their heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increases.” After you finish a scary movie you are left with a feeling like no other. Even though you are not aware of it, your physiological arousal lingers after the movie and all of those positive feelings associated with the film are intensified. When you think back to the movie weeks later, instead of thinking about the horror, you will recall the fun night you had and soon happily return to the theater for another frightening night.
A lot of people who find horror movies to be traumatizing or frightening may be a highly sensitive person (HSP). This means that a lot of things can be easily overstimulated to them or the way they visualize certain things can be intensified. So going to see a horror movie might not be the best idea for someone who tends to be a highly sensitive person. In some cases, highly sensitive people can also tend to be more empathetic than others leading them to empathize with the victim and not enjoy the particular movie. They will feel bad for the victim and just want to leave the theater right away. People with less empathy are known to really love horror films because they do not see anything terribly wrong with it while other people with more empathy just end up feeling bad and reacting horribly to the suffering of other people. Everything that a highly sensitive person sees in the movie is the same as a person that does not suffer from this but just more intensified.
In the end, there are many good psychological reasons why people either love or hate horror movies. It all comes down to what type of person you are and what you enjoy watching. Whether you are a highly sensitive person or you just crave an adrenaline rush it’s completely up to you to decide which kind of person you are when it comes to horror films.