Why Do People Like Horror Movies?
It’s our first date. He’s treated me to a movie in an old run-down theatre with velvet mothball drapes, and stained carpet. He pays for my upsized frozen Coke, walks behind me with his hand on the small of my back, and strokes the top of my thumb as the credits begin to roll. Then I look up at the screen and frown. I wasn’t expecting the opening scene to the ‘surprise movie’ to show a scantily clad woman with breast implants being impaled by a javelin-wielding, hockey-mask-wearing psycho killer.
As the movie progresses and the women slowly lose their clothes (and their lives), I find myself watching my date instead of the screen. He laughs as a man is decapitated. He grins when the killer cuts a woman’s arms off and beats her with them. He fist-pumps the air as two men are tied to a tree and shot. All the while, I’m sitting beside him wondering what kind of person takes pleasure in the misfortune of others, and what kind of lie I can come up with to get the hell out of there.
I wonder what distinguishes a person who enjoys horror against a person who doesn’t—what makes he and I so different? Maybe Freud (1856-1939) and Jung (1875-1961) can answer my question, as they both offer psychological and psychoanalytical explanations for why certain people enjoy horror movies, and why others don’t. According to Freud, horror is simply a manifestation of uncanny repressed feelings of an individual’s ego. Jung, however, argues that horror is an important aspect of society, as it touches on archetypes or primordial images usually reserved in the collective unconscious.
A good explanation for the love of horror can be found by illustrating the concept of the grotesque body, a literary trope imagined by Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin in his study of the work of French Renaissance writer and scholar, François Rabelais. In Bakhtin’s dissertation, he explores the ideas of carnivalesque and grotesque realism, ascertaining that the carnivalesque can be defined by an almost satirical or mocking challenge to the traditional social hierarchy and authority, and the grotesque body is actually a celebration of the cycle of life.
Positively, it coincides with birth and renewal. Negatively, it is linked to death and decay. Ambivalence is also extremely important, as the grotesque image represents an incomplete metamorphosis of birth and death, or growth and becoming, which is both humorous and frightening at the same time, especially when used symbolically in horror films.
One of the more popular examples is Edward Scissorhands (1990), a film I watched many years ago during my Johnny Depp phase (and that I’d much rather be watching right now). While the film is inspired by director Burton’s ostracism living in a stuffy Californian suburb and is ‘lighter’ than conventional horror films, the character of Edward is clearly represented as the ‘freak’ of society and his grotesque disability is symbolic of his inner turmoil and fear of being excluded and unloved. This classic example of the grotesque body is illustrated in such an unintimidating and unassuming way that I believe many people don’t even realise Burton is projecting elements of the concept, which is what makes the film so successful and accessible to the everyday person, marking it as first date worthy.
So why do people pay to see such repressed feelings represented in an abhorrent manner? And who is correct—Freud, Jung, or Bakhtin? Freud tells us the love of horror comes from repressed feelings, Jung tells us it’s our primordial unconscious that enjoys watching people getting chopped up in a woodchopper. Rabelais and Bakhtin tell us we take pleasure in exploring the grotesque and carnivalesque celebration of the circle of life. Could their explanations be that simple? Or is there another conclusion to be drawn?I remember reading that the Greek philosopher Aristotle believed stylised drama gave an audience the opportunity to purge themselves of certain negative emotions, a process he called catharsis. If this is the case, instead of break-up sex, maybe we should we all huddle up next to a fire and watch Snowtown (2011). Considering this thought, if watching horror movies were a mandatory experience of childhood, would that shape a serial killer—or prevent one from developing in adolescence? Another idea is that ‘someone else’s shoes’ complex, where people enjoy horror films because of the dissociation they feel upon watching them. Things aren’t really scary if you’re not personally worried about being stabbed in the back by an axe. You’re able to enjoy the ‘storyline’ more when watching horrendous things happen to someone else.
Other explanations conclude that thrill-seekers share three common traits: maleness, above-normal aggression, and attention/sensation seeking. Aggressive people seek out horror movies, however, we can’t accurately tell if they’re aggressive based on what people say about themselves. Often, the most truthful depiction of our attributes and personality come from other people’s observations. As for the supposed differences in gender, studies have shown that a lot of men say they like movies more than they do.
Maybe our brains can provide an answer? For people who enjoy scary movies, their adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine levels tend to go totally crazy, as the fight-or-flight response is triggered by the imagined fear. Your brains need this for healthy functioning. Certainly, adrenaline is good for you. Most people associate adrenaline with fear and stressful situations—which occur in horror movies!—however, this is simply your bodies way to bring your physiological and psychological systems back to normal, keeping everything in check, but in an entirely safe space. Your hormones get you excited and pumped and ready for action – your pupils dilate to enhance your vision, your blood vessels dilate to speed blood flow to your muscles, and your liver releases glucose to get you ready to use energy. Feeling scared allows you to experience adrenaline in a way that won’t physically hurt you, which can be absolutely exhilarating.
Certainly, horror movies are enjoyable enough to watch. What person doesn’t want to see a bare-breasted woman strangled in the bathtub? Is there any woman who doesn’t enjoy the idea of a rapist getting ‘what was coming to him?’ Of course, this is subjective. Hopefully, my date didn’t choose this movie to see bare-breasted women strangled in the bathtub, and doesn’t want to partake in the strangling for that matter.
But perhaps some people are genuinely creepy. The most outwardly ‘normal’ person could harbour a secret obsession with decapitation and the transmutation of human flesh. However, is that so wrong? (As long as they don’t enact their fantasies, of course!). Maybe people enjoy violence for the sake of violence.
By now, my date has almost entirely forgotten I exist, and I notice he is so absorbed in the fantasy of reverse bear-traps and impaled university students, he doesn’t even see me repeatedly check my phone for the time, or daydreaming about escape from the stuffy cinema. I look back towards the screen and take a moment to contemplate why he chose this particular movie to introduce himself to me. Why did he think a slasher film would guarantee a second date? In what reality did he think a javelin-wielding, hockey-masked wearing psycho killer would entice me to his bedroom? I’m not entirely sure what’s happening in the movie anymore because I’m so invested in mentally peeling back his layers and imagining who he is on the inside.
I think back to my old psychology classes and try to put theory into action. Is my date’s love for horror movies due to the manifestation of repressed feelings, as Freud said, or is it biological, as Jung suggests? For me, neither Freud nor Jung can definitely pinpoint why it is we love horror movies, though Bakhtin and Rabelais come close. From my own observations, I’ve found the carnivalesque idea is used more often than the grotesque to represent ‘freaks’ or ‘misfits’ who often terrorise society because they are social outcasts, and it’s a more concrete theory to why we like horror movies. As humans, we are obsessed with life and death, even if we don’t realise it.
And perhaps I never realised it’s probably more common than not for my date to be excited about watching two hours of sex, blood, and gore. However, maybe he often thinks about hanging women from trees? Who the hell knows?! He’s probably escaped from a locked ward!
As the movie runs its last lap, and the last survivor has the anti-climactic standoff with the killer, I have an epiphany. I realise the most important thing for me to remember is whether or not my date enjoys horror movies, it doesn’t make him a freak or a misfit. It doesn’t mean he has horribly repressed memories of abuse during his childhood. And it doesn’t mean his parents forced him to watch Day Of The Woman (I Spit On Your Grave) (1978) as a punishment for not eating his toast. In fact, the best explanation is he enjoys putting his natural fears into context and seeing how they play out on screen.
He might find horror movies a safe place to explore the side of himself usually hidden to society. Alternatively, he might be a psychopathic sadist, and in that case, I’d better get my tail end out of there before the credits roll!