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Why Do We Watch Scary Films?

Horror films are scary. And scary isn’t an emotion we’re intended to experience regularly. It’s evolutionary purpose is to tell us that something really bad is going down right now and we really need to cop ourselves on in order to deal with it. It’s meant to make our adrenaline flow, and our hair stand up – it’s meant to keep us on the edge and stop us feeling comfortable. So, why do we take such great joy in experiencing that abstract terror, the suspense and the horror of scary movies? Surely it’s contrary to our evolutionary logic, right?C'mon, it's not THAT scary...The logic holds true for anything scary – rollercoasters, heights, things like that. Our brain lets us know that these aren’t comfortable places – being scared is our brain’s way of telling us to get out of there are quickly as possible. And yet we will pay through our noses to be shocked and startled and made to feel ill-at-ease for close to two hours. It’s a question that has attracted a fair bit of scholarly attention.

There are a whole host of basic theories. There’s the suggestion that somehow vicariously experiencing the event through a giant screen is inherently different from living it. So our brains know that we aren’t being chased by an axe-wielding Jack Nicholson through a snowy maze, we’re just seeing it happen. In his book on the horror genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King suggests that the fear isn’t really fear – or, at least, it’s not the emotion we go to these films to enjoy. He suggests that the violence forms a sort of ‘safety valve’ release mechanism for our darker urges – at the highest possible level it stops us acting out our violent impulses by indulging them in a controlled environment.

His logic makes a compelling case when one looks at contemporary slasher films, which generally indulge the same sort of biblical (by which I mean “Old Testament” biblical) justice on social abhorants (the promiscuous, the jerks, and so on) which would seem ridiculously out of place. King suggests that in watching Jason massacre those dopey sex-minded bikini babes we are silently nodding our head, affirming actions of which we would never consciously approve. This theory even has a scientific-sounding name, “symbolic catharsis”.

This theory, of course, assumes that we are all – deep down inside – conservative. Horribly conservative. The kinds of people victimised in these sorts of movies are generally teens enjoying the liberal life style – clearly wandering around where they have no right to and casually disrobing – and we feel that they in some way have it coming. I honestly doubt that the target audience for these films – predominantly young people – are so staunchly conservative. I’m am reminded of Sideshow Bob’s assertion that people respond to those strong values:

Your guilty conscience may move you to vote Democratic, but deep down you long for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals, and rule you like a king. That’s why I did this, to save you from yourselves.

And King’s assertion lies on a faulty premise: we do get scared when we watch these movies, as scared as if we ourselves were being stalked and hunted, at least according to studies:

The brain hasn’t really adapted to the new technology [of movies]. We can tell ourselves the images on the screen are not real, but emotionally our brain reacts as if they are … our ‘old brain’ still governs our reactions.

So we are really viscerally experiencing the terror – it isn’t another element of the movie that we are discreetly savouring.

So, if we are really scared, why do we do it? There are all sorts of complex theories that although being frightened is an unpleasant experience, the euphoria we feel on surviving is worth chasing of itself. That logic seems to suggest that all us horror film buffs are really adrenaline junkies, on a less cool scale. From personal experience, I’m not sure that I buy that logic. I am not ashamed to admit that after watching the Japanese films Ringu and Audition in my teens, I had nightmares for weeks. I didn’t feel elated I’d made it to the end of the film, I was scared of having to turn the light off. Though apparently it’s common for younger viewers to store these horror images in their brain.

As an adult, I accept that the logic may hold less water – I haven’t really carried a horror film to bed with me since The Descent a few years ago. But it’s still a factor when we flick on a horror movie that I may have nightmares about it. And I don’t know that it’s a selling point the a film isn’t scary enough to give me nightmares. That’s a pretty lame horror film. But, again, I’m speaking from personal experience, so maybe there’s something to all this.

Still, some scientists would suggest that the logic underlining that assumption is wrong. Why can’t be both scared and euphoric at the same time?

We believe that a reevaluation of the two dominant explanations for people’s willingness to consume “negative” experiences (both of which assume that people can not experience negative and positive emotions simultaneously) is in order. … The assumption of people’s inability to experience positive and negative affect at the same time is incorrect.

That makes a bit more sense as an explanation, but is almost as illogical itself as our own infatuation with being scared. Scared and euphoric at the same time? Surely that’s like being hot and cold at the same time? But I guess that can happen – your brain plays tricks on you. And these are the science guys, after all.

Personally, I’ve always loved the social aspect of it – going with a group of mates or watching with the family. I feel good knowing I’m not the most scared in the group. It’s fun to watch others cower (though I’ll concede it is almost as often me as someone else). Movies that generate emotions work best as group experiences, and I can’t think of an emotion stronger than fear. I definitely think there’s a huge communal aspect to it all.

But I don’t know – I’m a movie blogger, not a scientist. After all that rambling, I don’t think I have an answer. Which is what I was afraid of from the start.

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This article is part of our “screen scare week”, a look at monster movie trends in the run up to Halloween. Check back every night at the witching hour (3am) for a new look at some aspect of horror movie subculture…

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