As spooky season gains steam, many people are investing in imagery that is considered scary. By the time Halloween rolls around, the order of the day will be horror movies and scary TV shows. Why are people fascinated by demons, ghosts, and monsters that go bump in the night? What sort of pleasure can possibly be gained by watching a ghost prank its victims and do the poorest redecoration? How is watching a chainsaw-wielding maniac saw people into pieces a good time?
The joy of suspense
When you think about a joke, what makes it really funny? The punchline. A good comedian sets up a joke with a great introduction, and unique delivery, leaving the audience in anticipation for a landing that sticks. The laughter that comes as a result of the punchline is all the more richer for how well the joke was set up. Apply the same principle to horror.
The best part of a horror movie is the suspense. When you’re scared for your protagonist, wondering if they’ll turn a corner and face the big bad monster, it acts as a mental and physical stimulant. Negative stimulation like anxiety or fright can still be a good thing when it comes to entertainment. This fear or anxiety triggers the release of adrenalin which can cause an energy surge, higher sensations, and eventually, euphoria.
Horror is also a safe way to explore the darker side of humanity. Unlike cautionary films based on real events that can be sources of existential dread, horror showcases meaningless depravity. For instance, one of the most acclaimed horror movies, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, shows how a man can sink to unrelatable depths to capture and kill his victims. Some horror movies also guarantee a twist ending where no one survives. The removal of the predictable endings where the protagonists are always spared—plot armour—makes horror entertainment more enjoyable. Horror entertainment also safely lets people explore darker stories such as alien invasions, hauntings, serial killers in a small town, zombie outbreaks, etc.
Finally, horror can be a great way to explore revenge fantasies for people who can’t get a specific type of justice. The slasher thriller I Spit on Your Grave is about a young sexual assault victim who systematically targets and kills her assaulters. In reality, this would be most likely impossible. This movie has been called for being too gratuitous in its depiction of rape.
But horror entertainment can provide catharsis for marginalized voices. The same happens in Jordan Peele’s Get Out where there is unique commentary on racism. People who have experienced this kind of discrimination get catharsis from their personified horror experiences being showcased on screen.
How do people enjoy horror?
A book by American psychologist, Michael Apter, Dangerous Edge: The Psychology of Excitement suggests that people must be in three psychological states for them to enjoy horror.
- Safety frame
The safety frame is the belief that you are physically safe. Watching a horror movie becomes less scary and more enjoyable because the ghost in the movie can’t physically affect you. People who are superstitious, or believe in supernatural entities may not enjoy the horror movie so much because, to them, the suspension of disbelief is more about wilful belief. If you believe the demon in a movie can possess you, you’re less likely to enjoy a movie like The Exorcist.
Detachment is the knowledge that what’s happening on screen is just acting. While the story can be compelling enough to be immersive, there’s a part of you that knows it’s still just fiction.
Having self-confidence regarding your safety also makes it possible to enjoy horror movies. If you’re someone with agency and security—whether real or personal—seeing a horror movie reinforces your confidence. In addition, going to a haunted house trip would reinforce that you can make it through a horror setting.
The book suggests that lacking these protective frames can make it more difficult to enjoy horror. If you scare too easily, let yourself get creeped out, or don’t feel safe in your environment, you’re less likely to enjoy horror entertainment.
Research also suggests you’re more likely to enjoy horror if you are a sensation seeker. If you’re out for more excitement, adrenalin, or thrill, you’re the target audience for horror. If you gravitate more towards comfort and settled within your comfort zone, you are rarely going to enjoy horror. People who are also more open minded to new experiences are also likelier to thrive on horror entertainment. However, having these traits doesn’t immediately guarantee an enjoyable viewing of The Conjuring.
Further research also found that people with lower empathy enjoy horror more. It’s also enjoyed more by younger people. Men are also more likely to enjoy horror than women. However, this could be because women experience higher levels of anxiety.
Benefits of watching or reading horror
After the horror movie ends, especially if the evil entity is defeated, it boosts the release of endorphins. These are hormones similar to what is released after exercise. They cause feelings of refreshment, relaxation, and happiness.
Studies show that people who watch horror movies are more likely to handle anxiety or trauma. People who consume horror content develop an ability to handle high-stress situations. It can help you develop emotional and behavioural strategies to manage anxiety. Some scientists suggest that consuming horror content is similar to exposure therapy but there is no clinical evidence supporting this.
Consuming horror content can be a great way to explore the beneficial side of fear responses. However, if you find them too stressful, don’t worry about it too much. It’s still a matter of preference.
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