Bilinovich: The (not so) terrifying reality behind our love of horror

Beau Bilinovich, Development Editor

Horror movies have been a staple of American culture for decades—and now that Halloween is right around the corner, it’s time to start your annual Halloween movie marathon.

But why have these types of movies maintained such a significant presence in our cinematic lives? Why do we like horror, anyways?

There is no one clear-cut answer to these questions. There are many reasons why someone would be intrigued by a horror movie villain, such as Michael Myers or the mastermind behind the evil machinations of the Saw franchise. Additionally, our hunt to find an explanation is further complicated by the fact that not everyone likes horror movies, some even actively avoid them. But for those who do enjoy watching the chainsaw or knife-wielding killer chase around a bunch of clueless protagonists, there are a few answers we can provide.

The most obvious answer to this question is that fans of horror movies are sensation seekers, which means they find pleasure in seeking out intense emotional experiences. Numerous studies have found that sensation-seeking behaviors predict a person’s enjoyment of horror movies.

This type of behavior is comparable to those who enjoy roller coasters: The intense experience of riding a roller coaster, with all its twists, turns and steep drops, strikes fear into the riders. In the same manner, witnessing a monster or villain stalk and chase protagonists, where some are not certain to make it through the movie alive, fills each moviegoer with fear, and some people enjoy that feeling.

Those same studies did show differences between different types of people. For example, a study found that men were rooted more strongly in adventure-seeking. In contrast, while watching the movies, women felt a stronger connection to disinhibition, defined as a loss of control or restraint.

To be certain, individual differences and other factors are at play in one’s enjoyment of horror movies (and correlation here does not necessarily mean causation). So what else could explain the everlasting appeal of the horror genre?

Surprisingly, empathy is another factor. Some evidence suggests that those low in empathetic traits are more likely to find pleasure in watching horror movies. The reason for this correlation is that those who are strong in empathy are better able to connect with the characters’ feelings in the film and so are less likely to enjoy watching them go through frightening experiences—the opposite relationship is present for those lower in empathy.

As always, there are variations. Some viewers might even watch horror movies to see the protagonists win in the end, which allows them to connect with the relief that the characters feel when the threat is eliminated.

Even so, these factors are only correlated with an individual’s enjoyment of horror films and are not meant to be understood as the sole reason anyone likes a movie such as Halloween or Friday the 13th. And in some cases, beneath the violence and tragedy, there are interesting plots and themes to explore. Sometimes, horror movies can be like an intriguing work of art.

Take the cult classic The Babadook, a 2014 psychological horror film from Australian writer and director Jennifer Kent. The movie might, at first, seem like another predictable horror film, but it becomes something much different. Without spoiling anything, it showcases the grief of a mother and the need to confront that grief while living alone with her child. The movie is a wonderfully terrifying depiction of the destructive nature of grief. Even amidst all the violence, it ends with a powerful message for the audience to consider.

It is important to note that not all horror movies are of the hack-and-slash category, with senseless violence and cheesy, derivative antagonists. There are many, like The Babadook, that have a lot to offer in terms of theme; these movies are just as special and important.

Super Dark Times, a personal favorite of mine, deals with the fracturing of friendships and the harsh realities of adulthood. While some might oppose the violence and tragedy inherent in its genre, dissecting the movie and its greater meaning can be a rewarding experience.

Whatever your reason for watching horror movies—thrill-seeking, a desire to watch the main characters succeed or the careful analysis of complex themes—there is something unique to the genre and its connection to the spookiest time of the year. So sit down, grab some popcorn and prepare to be scared.