One of my favorite things to do in this world is curl up on my couch with some popcorn and put on a horror movie. I love navigating the twists and turns of good horror, clutching a throw pillow to my chest and whimpering in fear. I love how my face grows colder when I witness something truly frightening, but I begin to sweat because of the adrenaline rush. I love it all… but why?
There are several theories (most unfinished) about why horror movies are so popular. Aristotle, for example, believed that scary stories and violent plays were considered popular because they relieved their audiences of their pent up aggression. This, as we all know from studying the Greek classics in high school English, is called Catharsis. Research, however, has proven Aristotle wrong. According to an experiment by James B. Weaver III, PhD, of Emory University, violent films lead to a more violent nature within the viewers, regardless of whether the film had a happy ending or not.
Sigmund Freud believed that horror movies speak to the thoughts and images held within the primitive id, which is being suppressed by the civilized ego. Following this thought, it can be posited that horror movies help to quell the chaotic desires of the subconscious (similar to Aristotle’s catharsis theory). Carl Jung, Freud’s student, believed something different. Jung developed the theory of the collective unconscious. Jung believed that horror movies tap into the collective unconscious, bringing to life primordial archetypes feared by everyone. While many believe these theories simply because of the people who came up with them, they cannot be tested and are widely disregarded amongst researchers today.
Many believe that horror is simply the product of curiosity and fascination. Glenn Sparks, Ph.D., of Purdue University, states that humans are genetically wired to pay attention to anomalies in our environment. Because of this, many are fascinated with horror in the same way they’re fascinated with a car accident. We simply can’t look away because we’re curious about this anomaly that could result in a change that is important to our survival. Horror takes place outside normal, everyday behavior, and that makes us want to see it more.
Dr. Margee Kerr, the staff sociologist at ScareHouse, states that most people enjoy horror simply because of the high received from the fight-or-flight response. The adrenaline rush makes people feel alive. Controlled scary environments, in which people are fully aware they are not in real danger, also release Dopamine, the pleasure chemical, into the brain, which causes happiness. When it’s all over, there’s also a boost in confidence and self-esteem that makes people come back for more.
Other theories include the Excitation Transfer, developed by Dr. Dolf Zillmann in 1978, and Dispositional Alignment Theory, also developed by Zillman, along with his collegues Tamborini and Stiff.
Excitation Transfer Theory, applied to horror movies, states that the negative feelings created by the scary and violent parts of horror movies intensify the positive feelings created when the hero triumphs over the baddie in the end. This theory doesn’t take into account the movies with unhappy endings. Also, studies have shown that people enjoy the scary/violent parts more than the happy ending.
Dispositional Alignment Theory, discussed here and here, posits that we like horror because we, as an audience, feel as though the people getting killed deserve death. Now, there is a lot wrong with this theory. For example, most horror movies aren’t killing criminals or the scum of society. Most horror victims are teenagers, innocent bystanders or characters about whom we’re supposed to care.
Neither of these theories were finished being developed. I may be wrong, but I don’t think either theory was tested on an audience.
Through all of my research, I have my own beliefs as to why we love horror so much. Horror movies teach us how to act in scary situations. They require us to face the unknown, to understand it and make it less scary. They put our fears into context and allow us to shape our perspective of the world around us. We like horror because it’s a glimpse into the unknown, that which we fear the most.
What are your theories? Let us know in the comments!