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Why Do People Like to Watch Scary Movies?

Many film theorists argue that scary movies are popular because they have a cathartic effect on viewers.
As with roller coasters, scary movies offer the thrill of the unknown.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 16 July 2014
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There are a number of theories as to why people like to watch scary movies. Of course, some people don’t care for them, and the largest audience for frightening film fare tends to be older teens and people in their early 20s. There are more mature audience members who love the thrills and chills, however, and it’s led many researchers to question why. Some researchers believe that the films represent the decay of society, show the value of staying within societal norms, or allow people to feel fear within a controlled setting.

There are some people who view scary movies, especially gorier films, as a product of society in decay, and the increased interest or need for violence to be sated. This theory bears some scrutiny, and really in the end doesn’t hold much weight. Even the earliest societies had their “monsters” or stories of gods, men and beasts that committed unspeakable horrors. While Hannibal Lector may be nightmarish, so is the House of Atreus in Greek mythology, which references some horrific instances of cannibalism. Even the Bible has its giants, destruction of whole cities and, especially in the Old Testament, a wrathful God who may stomp on the people until his feet are wet with their blood. Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung called these early stories cautionary tales featuring wrathful revenge for those who ventured outside normal societal boundaries.

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There’s something to the cautionary tale theory as it relates to movies. Many do seem to depict chaos that occurs when people venture outside of what is considered societal norms. They’ve also been used in the past, especially slasher films, to promote themes of how innocence may prevail. A huge criticism of John Carpenter’s film Halloween was that the only surviving character was virginal and sexually inexperienced. Wes Craven later makes play with this in Scream when teens recite the formula for what will get you killed in a horror film. One of the intrinsic slasher film values is “Don’t have sex.”

Yet scary movies aren’t simply cautionary tales. Others suggest that they are the man's way of experiencing fear in a controlled setting. Such an experience may prove enjoyable, since the fear can be controlled, and is limited to a fictional form of escapism that lasts for a couple of hours. Some see the enjoyment of these films as analogous to riding roller coasters. The thrill of the unknown elevates heart rate and boosts adrenaline, and since the “scares” pose no real threat, they can be processed, laughed about, and enjoyed. Real fear, which humans must face every day, is much more terrifying since it can’t necessarily be controlled, but the catharsis of watching a horror film may be a manner in which people deal with real and not imagined fear.

Some studies suggest that the real draw to scary movies is the feeling of relief when they are over. Other research, especially a 2007 study conducted by Eduardo Andrade and Joel B. Cohen, argues that the reason people like watching horror films is that they are a way to experience both positive and negative emotions simultaneously. At the same time, negative and sometimes absolutely horrific images play across the screen, the person watching the film is also experiencing positive emotions. This dual emotional state may reinforce the need to continue to watch horror films since it is an instance where it is acceptable to feel in two contrary states. Such an explanation might also account for why some people may enjoy films that are very sad.

Whatever the reason, watching frightening movies is likely to remain a constant cultural phenomenon. It has its roots in ancient cultures where oral tales of significant horror could certainly prove terrifying. Since films are a dominant cultural product, the ability for this medium to satisfy perhaps a primal need in some people to be scared is likely to continue.

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Discuss this Article

anon340975
Post 17

I liked what was said about feeling two different emotions at once, and what someone said about horror movies being like drugs for "adrenaline junkies" or whatever makes sense.

I still think that there is something wrong with the moral compass of anyone who loves horror movies. What if someone dismembered and tortured your mother? What if your dad or brother was treated in the manner that the people from "saw" were treated. Would it still be funny? Would it make you laugh then?

I would like to take the creators of this garbage and treat them exactly the way they depict the violence in their films. I think that horror movies are a contemporary social problem and are really a detriment to society.

People who like horror movies are generally, in my opinion, lower-class, trashy, uneducated -- more so than moviegoers of different genres. I have noticed this phenomenon for about a decade. Pay attention to it and you will see that horror movie buffs are just white trash types with no education. Horror movies really tick me off.

anon339866
Post 16

I'm just wondering what themes do people like in scary movies? Is it the feeling of hopelessness or the fear of being alone? I'm asking because I'm trying to write a horror movie and I can't decide on which direction to go.

anon327598
Post 12

I enjoy scary movies, and I'm actually curious about why that might be, or what experts think that might say about me. I got online to see what other people had to say on the subject. I don't care for movies where people are being tortured. Those seem to be more about control and suffering than anything else, and do not interest me. They're not scary, just gory. I'd hate for something like that to happen to me (or anyone), so don't get me wrong. I just don't find that sort of thing very entertaining in a movie (Saw, Hostel, the Collector/Collection, whatever).

I like the intangibles -- that which requires a little imagination. "The Exorcist" will always be number one. To the person who read the book and was disappointed by the movie, maybe you should try again. Like you, I got my hands on the book, years before every seeing the movie. In those days, you didn't see R-rated movies until you were 17. Video and cable have robbed us of that. Too bad.

I read "The Exorcist" (like the other person) when I was around 13. It took me more than a year. I recall getting scared and just tossing away from me. It went behind the dresser in my bedroom. That summer, when my mom made me clean up (under the bed. Make sure you move all the furniture around and clean there too, she said) I found the book, still opened to the page where I'd left off, the blurry picture of Linda Blair on the front cover. You really couldn't tell what was happening on that picture, which seemed to add to the suspense. That was over 30 years ago, but I still get the chills now, just thinking about it.

In the movie, the scene where she's being "hypnotized" by the therapists, is where I felt it was most like the book. I recall feeling as though I could see the words on the page as they questioned her, and as they responded to the "foul stench" and cold that suddenly filled the room. I haven't seen too many movies that I considered scary. I've got my fingers crossed for the new "Evil Dead" coming in April. There's potential there, but I've learned not to get my hopes up. I hope they don't screw it up.

It takes creativity to come up with a scary concept or idea, just as it takes real talent to come up with a hit song, but if people will listen to anything, you can have a hit song without necessarily being all that talented, and you can have a "scary" movie that has no real bite. For that reason, I think you should give "The Exorcist" another try. It may be a long time before another really scary flick will come along.

anon306978
Post 11

I hate scary movies, especially one that just came out called "The Collection". It's just too gory and I almost walked out and demanded my money back. I only went because my girlfriend wanted to see it and I didn't really know what I was getting myself into. It disturbed me in a way where I actually got angry at her for making me stay because I didn't want to watch it after one particular scene. Forget horror movies. They can go die for all I care.

anon305630
Post 10

Horror movies always have a moral theme. If you do something bad, you always get killed or hurt. It sort of lets you know the bad guys always "get theirs".

anon299915
Post 9

I like scary movies, especially if they are gory. It's quite thrilling and gets the adrenaline surging through my veins. I just get completely excited.

anon260905
Post 8

Check out my essay!

Why do people like scary movies?

A girl is slowly walking down the stairs of the hospital as her father comes to chase her. “Lora…” She is still slowly walking away. “Lora! It’s your father!” He calls her name but she keeps walking down, down, down. He finally catches up with her and taps on her shoulders. It is not his daughter that turns around, but a girl without jaws as blood drips down from her mouth. Nightmares are born from the memories after the movie, making us groan and sweat in our sleep, yet we will never stop watching scary movies.

A motivation in our heart stimulates us to keep watching horror movies, while our brain screams at us to stop. Scary movies are constantly created to please the audience by giving us a chance to prove our bravery, to make us feel the relief, and lastly because we enjoy the feeling of fear.

Bravery is the ability to be able to stand up for something or to have courage, and this is a feature that is believed to be proven through scary movies. Professor Glan Spark from Purdue University believes that it “goes back to the initiation rites of our tribal ancestors, where the entrance to manhood was associated with hardship.” We have been able to prove bravery in other ways long back since it was the matter of survival.

However, as our human society has developed, one of the very few ways we are able to prove it now in our everyday life is by watching horror movies. Horror movies are a source of fear and by facing these fears, we are able to prove our limits to others.

Just as bravery is proven through scary movies, it also gives us a feeling of relief and satisfaction. After two long hours of watching a scary movie, our brain is exploding with the images that have been displayed on the screen. When the movie ends, the muscles in our body relax and this gives us a moment of release. This can also lead to stress reduction. Scary movies allow two completely opposite emotions to take place at the same time, making it interesting and tempting to watch more of the scary movies.

Proving bravery and feeling satisfaction are only minor reasons for watching scary movies, but most obviously, we watch them because we enjoy the feeling of fear. We feel fear in our everyday lives, as well, however, unlike scary movies, they cannot be controlled with a remote.

Some also believe that, as we watch scary movies, our brains go through the illusion of believing we are actually experiencing what is happening on the screen. When we feel these fears, our bodies accelerate, which releases adrenalin in our brains. Horror movies are drugs for us humans. Our bodies want more and we cannot stop once we start watching.

anon248397
Post 7

I don't like horror movies because they all seem to be constructed in a way to make me bored. The character will just walk to one side of the room and get scared, then walk to the other side of the room and get scared again. The walk over here "BOO!", then walk over there "Oh no!".

Comedies are also formulaic, but at least they are funny.

Amphibious54
Post 4

@ Submariner- It seems like you enjoy being scared. I enjoy creepy scary movies, but I enjoy a good scary book even better. You can really let your imagination run wild, and nothing gives you more nightmares than a horror novel. When I was about twelve and thirteen, I used to read the exorcist when I was home alone or late at night. We lived in an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, and it used to scare me so bad that I couldn't fall asleep. I would often find myself getting up just to read a few more pages.

At this point, I had never seen the movie. I decided that I had to see it. I was disappointed and turned it off about half way. To this day, I have never finished watching the exorcist because of the disappointment.

submariner
Post 3

@ Anon94104- I like scary movies, but they have to be of certain horror genres for me to enjoy. I find that the scariest scary movies are those that are about things that are unknown, and survival horror movies. If you can combine the two, then you end up with a truly creepy film.

I also like the setting to be right, and I enjoy the nightmares that occur afterward. In a way, the nightmares allow me to re-live the moments, and either succeed or fail as the "hero". If the nightmares make you wake up and pull your feet under the blanket, then it was a scary movie.

If I am watching a scary movie at home, I like to watch them when I am alone (or with my lady), and late at night. When I am watching them in the theater, I like to go to the latest show, and watch them after they have been out for a while. Nothing adds to the mood more than an empty theater.

anon94104
Post 2

Well i like scary movies, and i watch them online.

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