There are three core reasons why people watch horror films.
First, we have a similar physiological pattern (e.g. heart rate and electrical changes in the skin) when we experience either fear or pleasure. This means that when recording someone’s physiological responses to horror films it can be difficult to tell whether the viewer is feeling fear or pleasure or both at the same time.
In regards to the experience of fear, the human brain is hard-wired to identify potentially dangerous situations. Psychologist René Misslin explains that when we experience a fear stimulus, the brain’s fear response centre (amygdala) in the limbic system of the brain instinctively mobilises the sympathetic nervous system and fight-flight body defence system.
Although a life threatening experience will trigger our brain fear response centre, it is also activated when we imagine our own fears, such as a visit to the dentist or creating a mood of feeling frightened before watching a horror film. As we watch the film our brain is actively seeking our fear stimuli to support our mood of feeling frightened.
However, personality factors also play a role in whether we enjoy being scared and make the difference between the viewer who enjoys watching horror films and others who experience fear and trepidation. According to sociologist Margee Kerr, people enjoy watching horror films because it is a safe way of exploring our fears and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, and in some cases the experience increases our confidence, knowing that we can deal with real life challenging situations.
"From an early age, we are exposed to scary bedtime stories like the boogieman who we are told lurks in the dark under our bed or in the closet."
Secondly, there is a deep cultural component to scary experiences which don’t present any physical danger to our safety. From an early age, we are exposed to scary bedtime stories like the boogieman who we are told lurks in the dark under our bed or in the closet. When are go to sleep, we are at our most vulnerable to being attacked because it is dark and the quietest time of the day. In the dark, our imaginations conjure up many possible unknown dangers that might be hiding in the dark and any sudden slight noise makes us sometimes overreact, as if it was a threat to our lives.
Families also prepare for the celebration of Halloween and trick and treat. This annual event makes it acceptable for us to gain pleasure from things that scare us and make them fun too! To some extent our cultural heritage of finding pleasure from being scared is a core driver to the entertainment industry. At present the horror film industry is worth over £1 billion, indicating that the horror film is a very popular and lucrative genre.
Thirdly, in my recent scientific study the ‘Terror & Tension’ film experiment I discovered that viewers who enjoyed horror films described different fictional characters that scared them most and provided the greatest enjoyment. Most viewers felt that young children were very creepy and scary in horror films. However, the antagonist wearing masks were also perceived as being scary because they hide the character’s facial expressions so you don’t know what they are feeling. This made them feel more threatening especially when they are used by characters in home invasion horror films because it could happen to them in real life. Another popular antagonist to elicit a strong fear response was a supernatural force, whether someone is possessed by an evil spirit or a ghost. This is because you can’t defend yourself from something that is invisible and has the power to move objects and throw people across a room. This part of the study concluded that pleasure was attached to the viewer’s favourite antagonist that elicited their greatest fears.
Find out more at receptivecinema.com.