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Why horror movies are curiously addictive

We go to horror films because we want to be frightened, but why does anyone like to watch horrific things happening to people?

Last October, I bought my wife a treat – tickets to a horror-movie festival screening. Because my wife does not actually like horror movies, I didn’t tell her what we were going to see. When we arrived at the Roxy in Wellington to see posters advertising the festival, however, she worked out the general theme. Fortunately, Anna and the Apocalypse was a Christmas-themed Scottish horror musical, and the zombie-to-singing ratio was just right for both of us.

So, you now know that I like horror films but my wife doesn’t. This isn’t so unusual – men tend to watch more of the genre than women. But the question remains – why does anyone like to watch horrific things happening to people? After all, according to James Russell and Geraldine Pratt’s “circumplex” model of emotions, fear is an unpleasant emotion and we are evolved to avoid it. In fact, emotion researchers often describe emotions such as fear as an avoidance-related emotion – when we experience fear, it’s a signal to avoid the thing that caused it.

Freudians may say that watching these movies allows us to feel catharsis, a release of pent-up tension associated with expressing our hot and sweaty unconscious through viewing. Jungians have suggested that horror movies draw heavily from the archetypes that, Jung suggests, underlie all of our relationships. These ideas are not easy to confirm; what tests we have seen don’t really establish them.

Let’s return to Russell and Pratt’s circumplex model, which, for the unfamiliar, is a circle with different emotions plotted around the outside, influenced by horizontal and vertical dimensions. One of these dimensions is valence – good versus bad, pleasant versus unpleasant. The other is arousal – the extent to which an emotion comes with physiological activation or responsiveness. Depressed is low arousal and low valence; excited is high arousal and high valence; and fear is low valence and high arousal – sweaty palms, faster heartbeats, etc.

This may help explain why at least some of us enjoy being afraid. “People go to horror films because they want to be frightened, or they wouldn’t do it twice,” says psychology professor Jeffrey Goldstein. We tend to do things more than once because they are “reinforcing” – they have some kind of pay-off. But what is the pay-off in being scared pantless?

First, people aren’t all wired the same. Sensation seeking is a trait that we all possess to some extent. High-sensation seekers not only like risky sports, taking a gamble and trying new things, they also tend to like horror movies more.

That 10% or so of the population, however, probably don’t drive all of the market for horror movies. Even for less-sensation-seeking consumers, it takes a while after the movie ends for the physiological arousal to wear off. Our experience of what follows is heightened, meaning we may appreciate the immediate aftermath more.

The other reinforcement is that when the movie ends, we experience relief from the unpleasant emotions: “Phew, I survived.”

As with any movie, the end of a horror flick is important. I think I could argue that the content of horror movies has changed over time to reflect broader cultural anxieties, and it’s therefore important that a story ends not only with a resolution, but also a just resolution – to help us retain our psychological blanket that the world is still a just and fair place. Because if it isn’t, we, too, might wake up to slavering hordes of zombies being humorously dismembered by singing Scottish teenagers.

This year, the festival highlight is Color Out of Space, based on HP Lovecraft’s 1927 short story. I actually enjoy Lovecraft’s imaginative storylines and overblown, dodgy writing. I really hope that the scariest thing about this film isn’t Nicolas Cage’s overblown acting.

This article was first published in the November 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.