Just in time for Halloween, Henry Roberts discusses our psychological basis for wanting to watch scary movies. 


It’s usually easy to figure out why we watch certain films. We watch comedies because they make us laugh. We watch old classics for nostalgic purposes; perhaps they remind us of childhood or of a more innocent time. Even dark and depressingly gritty films offer us joy simply by putting us in the company of great art. We watch- and re-watch- the movies we love because they make us happy. So why, then, do we watch horror movies? Why do we take pleasure in the horrific and grotesque and, furthermore, why do we choose to return to the genre time and time again? Fundamentally, why do we like being scared?


From a psychological and evolutionary standpoint, this does seem to be a paradox. These films are designed to bring us terror, yet we voluntarily pay money to see them. Some of us do so frequently, addicted to the thrills they provide, like tornado chasers following severe storms. Why are we agents in our own distress? Some cite the Ancient Greek concept of catharsis. We are offered a scary situation onscreen and we see it resolved, thus helping us deal with our real life fears. However, anyone who has seen even a couple of scary movies will know that they rarely end on a cheery note. Rather, Dr Jeffrey Goldstein of the University of Utrecht takes a different view: “People go to horror films because they want to be frightened or they wouldn’t do it twice.”


In his book Why We Do the Things We Do, Joel Levy offers three reasons for why we enjoy scary films. The first argues that fear is an evolutionary cognitive trait that really unites peoples across borders. So whilst certain national films bound in national customs may not be accessible to a foreign audience, fear is a universal reaction; therefore the horror movie has universal appeal.


The second reason originates with Freud and Jung. Both theorists offer a similar reason as to why we enjoy immersing ourselves in horrific stories, applied to the horror movie, and they both lie in psychoanalysis. Freud suggests that horror conjures up suppressed emotions and desires, and thus the horror movie offers us “the vicarious thrill of a dip into the id.” A Jungian, on the other hand, would argue that scary films tap into the archetypes deeply embedded in the collective psyche. However, Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis are nowadays largely dismissed for not being embedded in hard scientific evidence.


The third reason cited is the so-called ‘snuggle effect.’ A 1986 study found that males enjoyed watching a horror film more if his female companion exhibited distress whilst watching. Similarly, females enjoyed the film more if the male remained unaffected and passive. The fearful emotions caused by a film watched in a safe environment may produce a confusing combination of reactions, and adhering to one’s perceived social roles may increase a feeling of mutual attraction. Like with rollercoasters or a feat of endurance, the scarier the film is, the more we hear about it. The more buzz around the film- now seen as a feat of endurance- the more we want to prove ourselves in front of those whose admiration we crave.


Rationality may not be important. We know- rationally- that a man cannot really murder us in our dreams, as in A Nightmare on Elm Street. At the same time, we know it is quite possible that we may be slayed one night in our suburban home à la Michael Myers in Halloween­­. Yet, the supernatural terror of Elm Street haunts us just as much as the earthly slasher film which has the potential to occur in real life. The quality and make-up of the film therefore, not its groundings in reality, are what make a film truly haunting. (Whether a demonic possession as in The Exorcist is an actual possibility is still debated.)


 Possibly it all boils down to our shared desire to feel something. Something cheap and ephemeral, perhaps, but something genuine all the same. Horror movies provide just this. It is, after all, relatively easy to scare someone. While a bad comedy won’t make an audience laugh, just as a bad drama won’t make them cry, a bad horror can still be a poor film whilst nevertheless functioning as an effective means of scaring the audience, even if by exploiting cheap cinematic tricks. A few moments of silence, coupled with darkness, then a sudden break from these absences of light and sound that make the audience jump. Tension, then tension quickly burst like a balloon. An increased heart rate. Hairs on the neck stood up. We are given a dose of adrenaline. Horror movies routinely sanction genuine reactions.


Horror has both its appeal and effects with all ages. However, perhaps there is some merit in advocating more horror screenings for young people. This is not to ignore the arguments against gratuitous violence or the mistreatment of women onscreen, and the effects this has on impressionable audiences. Rather, it’s a call for authenticity. We are a generation both addicted to social media yet one screaming for actuality. The screams both on and off the screen at the sight of an alien bursting from a man’s stomach prove that the most authentic reactions can come from the most inauthentic scenarios. At a time when genuineness is a rarity in our lives (a “LOL” or tear-faced emoji being habitually summoned when neither real laughter or tears are produced), young people especially may benefit from putting down a phone every so often and getting a real scare from a larger screen.