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The science of scaring: why we’re obsessed with watching horror movies

The science of scaring: why we’re obsessed with watching horror movies
Posted at 5:10 AM, Oct 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-26 01:37:13-04

(RNN) - Forty years after the original, the latest “Halloween” movie ruled the box office in its opening weekend, setting several records, including the biggest horror opening with a female lead. But just what has made this franchise and others like it such an enduring presence in popular culture?

Film critics have hailed the last few years as a renaissance of the horror genre, thanks to stellar reviews and huge box office takes in 2017 for “It” and “Get Out,” the latter of which won Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards and was nominated for Best Picture.

So far in 2018, movies like “A Quiet Place” and “Hereditary” have captured audience and critics’ hearts alike and created plenty of Oscar buzz.

There are many reasons horror is a popular genre for filmmakers: the movies usually don’t cost much to make, they appeal to broad sections of theater-going audiences and they promise huge returns.

But what do audiences like about horror? Why do they flock to these movies in such large numbers?

One explanation revolves around the emotions horror movies evoke in people – emotions that aren’t just abject terror. When filmgoers watch these movies, they truly relate to the characters on-screen.

Even though scary movies seem like they are only meant to terrorize viewers, Professor Mathias Clasen of Denmark’s Aarhus University believes the most successful of these movies portray realistic human relationships and psychology.

"That’s where horror matters,” he said. “That’s where horror can teach us something truly valuable.”

Richard Newby, a writer for The Hollywood Reporter, similarly theorizes films like “Get Out” and “A Quiet Place” are both popular and award-worthy because “they strike an emotional chord that’s so honest it hurts.”

“Get Out” was praised for its portrayal of racial tensions, and “A Quiet Place” delved into the parent-child relationship, as well as depicting a deaf teenager and her family using American Sign Language to navigate the world around them.

The latest “Halloween” even got in on the action, showing how the trauma Jamie Lee Curtis’ character Laurie Strode experienced in 1978 when Michael Myers came back to town negatively affected her life and her relationships with her family.

When people relate to the characters they see on-screen, they are more emotionally moved by the stories these films are trying to tell us – and horror is a genre that hinges on emotion.

To truly scare, these movies work hard to get movie-going audiences invested in their stories and characters.

Another explanation for why people are drawn to horror movies dives into evolution and fears that surface across genders, races, ages, etc.

Tons of people are scared of rats, snakes and large creatures like lions that could hurt or eat them, and those fears have translated into horror movies like “Willard,” “Anaconda” and “Jaws.”

In his article “The Lure of Horror” for The Psychologist, Dr. Christian Jarrett points back in human history to the days of early humans, who were often afraid of getting eaten, as a reason why these films are so popular.

Jarrett also notes that even human killers such as Freddy Krueger in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” or Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” will either be armed with large claws or fascinated by tasting human flesh.

Other horror movies focus on super-powered human-like creatures, such as zombies and vampires, and Jarrett lists them as similar to other threats early humans may have faced.

“Successful horror films are those that do the best job of tapping into our evolved cognitive machinery – they exploit topics and images we already fear,” said psychology Professor Hank Davis, as quoted by Jarrett.

If a movie fan is looking to be scared, horror films, particularly those that dwell on deep-seated terrors found in the human psyche, are a good place to turn.

One final theory about why people like watching horror movies explores similar territory to the evolutionary theory but focuses on current fears instead of past ones.

The real world can be a scary place, which – somewhat ironically – may be a reason for the popularity of horror movies.

Film critics suggest the horror renaissance of the last few years may be a direct result of the tumult seen in U.S. and global politics.

Horror also hit a peak in the years 1999 to 2002 with movies like “The Sixth Sense, “The Ring,” “Final Destination” and “The Blair Witch Project.” Forbes contributor Rob Cain notes these were years of great distress in the U.S. with President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, the 9/11 terrorist attack and the start of the Iraq War.

When people go to horror movies, the tension and fear they may feel in their daily lives is superseded by the fear in the narrative, a fear that they know isn’t real.

"It's a blood-soaked environment they can leave behind at the theater, that will hopefully allow them to stop thinking about reality, at least for a short period of time," said Amie Simon, creative marketing director at a Los Angeles-based digital marketing and media firm.

In addition, Clasen points out that horror movies often deal in terms of black-and-white; there is no gray, confusing middle ground.

“Zombies are unequivocally bad. They need to be killed; they need to be shot in the head. There is no moral shade of grey and that can be a pleasurable fantasy – a way to relax your mind,” he said, as quoted by Jarrett.

By watching horror movies, audiences can find reassurance in the narrative that the good guys will triumph in the end – even if a bunch of people have to die before that happens. These movies provide resolution that real life can’t, not when you’re in the middle of living it.

In the end, it’s difficult to say which of these theories influence people’s movie choices. One person may watch horror so they don’t have to think about the real world, but another may go to the theater simply because their friend asked them to.

However, one thing is for certain: horror movies have been and will always be extremely popular.

Movies such as those featuring the Universal Classic Monsters, including “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Invisible Man” and “Frankenstein,” date back to the early 1900s and the beginning of the film industry.

Horror has always been here, and it isn’t going to die anytime soon.

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