Fright Night

Why Our Brains Love Horror Movies: Fear, Catharsis, a Sense of Doom

Films like Paranormal Activity 3 still make massive box-office hauls, and science knows why. Sharon Begley reveals why scary flicks give us a powerful feeling of catharsis and reinforce old-fashioned beliefs about morality.

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When Paranormal Activity 3 chalked up record-setting numbers at last weekend’s box office (its $54 million was the most ever for a horror film), Stuart Fischoff wasn’t surprised. “Films like Paranormal Activity 3 have a pre-registered audience just waiting for the latest Hollywood bouquet of blood, sweat, tears, and chills to exquisitely fill our lust for horribly sweet sensations,” says Fischoff, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and senior editor of the online Journal of Media Psychology.

The fact that some people like to be scared out of their wits never ceases to baffle those of us who would as soon see Freddy Krueger slash his way through A Nightmare on Elm Street as we would have surgery without anesthesia. But to masters of the genre, as well as to experts in media psychology, it makes perfect sense. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King described “terror as the finest emotion, and so I will try to terrorize the reader.” What makes it so fine? “One of the major reasons we go to scary movies is to be scared,” says Fischoff. But the scare we crave—and this applies to haunted houses and spooky corn mazes no less than to horror movies—is a safe one. “We know that, in an hour or two, we’re going to walk out whole,” says Fischoff. “We’re not going to have any holes in our head, and our hearts will still be in our bodies.”

But those hearts will likely be pounding a bit harder than if you had just seen, say, Dolphin Tale. And that accounts for a lot of the appeal. “If we have a relatively calm, uneventful lifestyle, we seek out something that’s going to be exciting for us, because our nervous system requires periodic revving, just like a good muscular engine,” says Fischoff. A 1995 study found that the higher people score on a scale that measures sensation-seeking, the more they like horror films. “There are people who have a tremendous need for stimulation and excitement,” says Fischoff. “Horror movies are one of the better ways to get really excited.”

That may explain why horror movies are most popular with younger audiences. Teens and twenty-somethings “are more likely to look for intense experiences,” says John Edward Campbell, an expert in media studies at Temple University. That fades with age, especially as people become more sensitive to their own physiology: middle-aged and older adults tend not to seek out experiences that make their hearts race, and feel that real life is scary enough. (Did we mention foreclosure? Unemployment? Divorce?) They don’t need to get their scares from movies. Or as Fischoff puts it, “Older people have stimulation fatigue. Life’s [real] horrors scare them, or they don’t find them entertaining any more—or interesting.”

One of the more counterintuitive findings in the science of fear is that the stronger the negative emotions (fear, worry, anxiety...) a person reports experiencing during horror films, the more likely he or she is to enjoy the genre. Distress and delight are correlated. “The pleasure comes from the relief that follows,” says Campbell. “It provides a cathartic effect, offering you emotional release and escape from the real world of bills and mortgages and the economy and relationships.”

The catharsis theory is one of several that have been floated over the years to explain the appeal of being scared out of your wits. Freud suggested that horror was appealing because it traffics in “thoughts and feelings that have been repressed by the ego but which seem vaguely familiar,” as a 2004 paper explained. Jung argued that horror touches on primordial images in the collective unconscious. But since there is no evidence that many of us have repressed feelings of drowned children like Freddy marauding through a summer camp in Friday the 13th, let alone that that’s part of our collective unconscious, such psychoanalytic explanations for the appeal of fear have fallen by the wayside.

Instead, scientists suspect that other motivations, besides catharsis, are at work. One comes from the fact that horror movies, even slasher flicks, generally stick to an almost Victorian moral code. You can be pretty sure that the girl who has sex with her boyfriend will wind up dead (as parodied in the Scream movies), as will teenagers who pick up deranged hitchhikers. Horror films thus appeal to people who like predictability and neat ends, hold the ethical relativism: in these movies, there is no question about who the bad guy is. And despite the high and often gory body count, the films tend to have a (relatively) happy ending. “Control lost under the cover of darkness is rediscovered in the light of day; danger posed by things unknown is reduced by increased knowledge and predictability,” explained clinical psychologist Glenn Walters of Kutztown University in that 2004 paper (written when he worked at a federal prison in Minersville, Pa.)

He suggests that the appeal to teenagers also goes beyond thrill-seeking and catharsis. Horror movies help young people learn to manage terror. “They can either succumb [to frightening images] or learn to manage,” he argues. “By learning to suppress feelings and display mastery or cling to others in a dependent ploy for protection, a person learns to cope with another aspect of his or her environment, a skill that may be useful in dealing with more than just horror pictures.” That may explain another oddity of the genre: horror movies are popular date films. “Teenage boys enjoyed a horror film significantly more when the female companion... expressed fright, whereas teenage girls enjoyed the film more when the male companion... showed a sense of mastery and control,” Walters argued.

Perhaps most fundamentally, horror films are popular because they speak to the basic human condition of existential fear, the knowledge that we are all doomed (albeit not as messily as Jason’s or Freddy’s victims). By sitting through a fictional depiction of that fact—even if the movie’s victims slough their mortal coil in a more sensational way than most of us, God willing, will—we face our greatest fear.

Yet when people are asked to name their top 25 favorite films, horror almost never makes the cut, Fischoff and colleagues found. (The Godfather, Star Wars, Casablanca, and The Sound of Music jostle for room at the top; the closest the horror genre comes is an occasional appearance by Ghost, which is more romantic than scary.) “Horror is almost no one’s favorite genre,” says Fischoff. The two horror films named by the most people, Nightmare on Elm Street and The Exorcist, each got only six mentions from the 560 people surveyed. People 50 and older almost never name a horror film as one of their 25 favorites (0.2 percent of this group’s top 25 lists include a horror movie). But the genre accounts for only 3.2 percent of the top films named by people 13 to 25, and 2.3 percent of those named by those 26 to 49. (For whatever it’s worth, the ethnic group that names the most horror films to its top 25 lists is Latinos.)

Why is horror less popular than other genres? “Generally, people anticipate feeling entertained and feeling good when they leave a movie,” explains Fischoff. But while horror films excite and arouse, they “often leave people feeling nervous and unsettled,” despite any catharsis. “This is not a state which leads to fond memories.” As anyone with nightmares after Nightmare can attest.