Horror is one of the most enduringly popular genres of cinema and has been from the very start. Glancing over lists of highest grossing films by year, it is inevitable that behind the barrage of superhero and animation features, a litter of twisted flicks will prove to be some of the biggest earners and local multiplexes will be flooded most Wednesdays by people of all backgrounds looking for their next macabre thrill.
Even before cinema, ghost stories and gothic fiction were some of the most widely circulated works ever created. For some reason, we really enjoy terrifying ourselves and it is this that continually fascinates psychologists and provokes the question: why?
One reason, very basically put, is for the thrill. Research conducted by Dr. Thomas Straube at the Freidrich Schiller University of Jena in 2010 actually displayed, through the use of scans, that the most active parts of our brains while watching scary movies are: the visual cortex where we process visual information; the insular cortex which is concerned with self-awareness and the dorsal-medial prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain connected to attention, planning and finding solutions. So, taking into consideration the limits of scientific testing of this kind, we can posit that it isn’t necessarily fear that attracts us to horror but the appeal of the ‘what if?’ and the chance to activate the survival instinct in a safe place.
Following on from this, Dr. Marvin Zuckerman believes that seeking to watch horror films corresponds highly with his research on what he has dubbed ‘the sensation-seeking trait’. Zuckerman says that thrill seekers enjoy the heightened awareness produced in intense situations and it is a “morbid curiosity” that leads them to the horror movie. When the brain is met with this intensity, the dopamine hormone is produced and this is what causes the giddy thrill that can last long after the credits have rolled.
Moving away from the psychological, the sociological drive behind horror is just as intriguing. John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing) in an interview with the Writer’s Guild of America described it as “such a venerable, such an adaptable genre”, horror evolves with the society around it and realises our common fears in highly creative ways. The mutated figures of monster films of the 1950s reflected a fear of the effects of nuclear weapons, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is said to be a manifestation of the distrust of authority figures, and the current popularity of the zombie apocalyptic scenarios are stemming from the fears of various global pandemics. This suggests horror as a way to explore cultural issues both for the creators and the viewers. Again, the safe space of the movie theatre or living room is a place in which we can confront these thoughts and process them without ever having to put ourselves in danger.
Mixed up in the horror genre is also an unfortunate, highly conservative streak where often promiscuous teens and others stepping outside of what society deems acceptable are punished in the most gruesome ways by a psychotic killer. Due to this, there is a belief that we view horror as a way to reaffirm values but recent years have shown a more progressive crop of films arriving, a trend that will surely continue.
From asking friends their views in the process of writing this article, what became apparent was – ignoring the subconscious desire we have for horror – it is largely appreciated for the simple reason of fun. Watching a horror is a great social experience: either you get to discuss what scared you after and discover things about each other or have a good laugh. The genre invites a streak of very black humour and a bad horror often easily becomes a good comedy (2008’s Mirrors is a personal favourite).
The speculation behind why we watch these films is interesting but there is still so much we don’t know about how our brains work for this to be conclusive. All we can be sure of is that horror has provided some of the most memorable moments in cinema and it will continue to do so.