Because I’m insane and I obviously don’t have enough going on in my life, I’ve started this video series talking about horror movies. And not just specific movies, but the entire genre, sub-genres, directors, time periods, countries, etc. etc. etc. Any topic imaginable, basically.
These are the things I do when I’m unemployed apparently.
In the first video I just do a cursory once over, an introduction to the genre and what it is I’ll be talking about. In video two, which I’ve just posted, I talk about the Why of horror movies. Specifically, why do we watch? For a genre that’s so dark, disturbing, and makes us feel all of the bad things, what’s the attraction for us, the audience? Why do we keep coming back for more?
You can watch my first video here (apologies for the poor video/audio quality) and here’s the second video:
I cover the basics in the video and here, now, I’m going to go a little more in depth (in death?). If I covered it all on camera, I’d be talking to you for about an hour there! I’m not joking, I did a lot of cutting while I was working on the edit… Have I mentioned the part where I’m a nerd?
Right, I think you’ve noticed that part. So anyway, let’s talk about horror movies. Let’s go a little deeper into the psychology behind why we can’t look away.
It’s a thing I’ve thought a lot about over the years actually, ever since my obsession with horror movies began. I mean, how did I, someone terrified by even the suggestion of a scary story, become obsessed with the very genre that gave me so many nightmares before I’d even seen the movies? Why did I keep going back? To torture myself and push the bounds of my mental well being? Maybe?
My first discovery was that beyond the stories, I love the special effects. Some of the first movies I watched in my horror viewing journey included Alien, John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Evil Dead, and Hellraiser. Each of these have fantastic special effects, from their creature creations to their make-up. No CGI here, these movies are the real deal. Built from the ground up, often with insane budgetary and time limitations, not to mention studio involvement, what these filmmakers and artists were able to create is incredibly impressive. These effects are still a huge attraction for me.
But it’s not everything. Because when we’re talking horror we can’t ignore the obvious, the state of emotions these films evoke. The fear, the terror, the tension, the mind bending crazy. We go to these movies to be scared.
Yes, each sub-genre has it’s own special attraction. But at the end of the day, what they all have in common is that they are trying to scare us. They are trying to make us uncomfortable. They are pushing us out of our comfort zones.
So why do we keep coming back?
If we want to really start to understand this, let’s go to the psychology. There are some obvious starting places.
One, is the same phenomenon that happens when we’re driving and we pass an accident. How many people can honestly say they don’t look? They don’t take in the destruction, the devastation? I’m not saying it’s something we like to see, it’s certainly not a thing that gives us pleasure. And yet, we feel that compulsion to look.
Same thing happens when we’re watching a scary movie. The emotions we feel may be negative ones, but we still feel that compulsion to look. Ever cover your eyes during a particularly gory scene, only to find yourself peeking through your fingers? Yeah, that.
So why is this? Why the need to see things that we know are bad? Part of it is an evolutionary, survival instinct. We look at things that we know represent danger so we can then learn from them, learn what to avoid. Especially when we know we’re in a safe place and doing so will cause us no direct harm.
Along those lines, here’s the second thing that happens. Watching a scary movie, looking at that car crash, parachuting out of an airplane. What do these things all have in common? In each case, we’re facing our fears in a safe, controlled environment. These situations, and any situation involving the suggestion of danger, allow us to experience the danger in a non-threatening way. We know, in the end, everything will still be okay.
This allows us to experience moments of fear, to feel the adrenaline which gives us a total rush. Watching a horror movies builds up unpleasant emotions, pain, fear, discomfort, terror. But then, once our brains realize the danger isn’t real, we get a rush as all of these emotions are released. And this rush, this release, creates the feeling of pleasure and the easing of adrenaline. We get that moment of catharsis.
It’s like riding a roller coaster. What starts out as a potentially threatening, dangerous experience becomes pleasurable once we acknowledge that we’re safely strapped in. (Also, it’s why something like Final Destination 3 works. Roller coaster of doom! Literally!)
So adrenaline and that evolution thing. It’s the fight or flight response that we’re talking about here. When we feel that we’re in danger, we literally become aroused. And once we realize there is no real danger, all of this arousal has to go somewhere. For some people, it creates a pleasurable rush. For other people, it causes stress and anxiety. It’s why some of us love horror movies and some of us hate them.
A big part of the appeal is how we feel AFTER the movie is over.
Because this is all an emotional, psychological reaction, it is possible for fans of horror to become desensitized after a time. If we’ve seen it already, we know what to expect. That being said, this can also make a movie more effective when it subverts our expectations, plays with the rules to give us something new.
Which is another attraction of the genre, the novelty of it. These are not things we see every day. Mostly, they’re things we’ll never (thankfully) see in real life. It’s why new filmmakers are constantly pushing the envelope of what’s acceptable, what make-up can do, what the limits are. To give us something NEW. Something Novel. Something original. Mostly this is a good thing although for some viewers, myself included, some of these movies go too far. I’m talking mainly about the flicks we refer to as torture porn or the rape/revenge sub-genre.
We want movies and characters we can relate to, an emotional connection to the people on screen gives us a fuller experience, but sometimes a movie hits too close to home. This in turn may cause the pleasure of watching to diminish. It’s a thing that’s going to be different for each person watching, everyone has their own limits. But once we see something that our brains acknowledge could be real, it trumps the feelings of safety found from knowing a movie is fiction.
For the gorier movies, I do tend to feel more of a sense of detachment. Once I see the special effects happening, I’m taken out of the fantasy of the experience to an extent and in this case knowing it’s not real allows me to appreciate the effects more on screen. And sometimes I think they’re funny. For example, I don’t find something like Dead Alive scary at all, I find the climax to be completely hilarious. When you personify organs and have intestines trying to strangle people, that’s so far out of the realm of reality that I laugh at the sheer absurdity. At the same time, I’ve showed the movie to friends who have found the Mother Monkey Monster at the end to be completely revolting. I just enjoy the weird Oedipal twist. Or whatever that is.
However, when you have films striving for more realistic special effects, films like Hostel or Saw, I don’t get any pleasure from watching people tortured. Those effects don’t take me out of it, they just give me all of the bad feelings. These movies evoke a feeling of disgust that’s never given an opportunity for release to the extent that for me they have no emotional payoff and no redeeming value. Same goes for the rape/revenge sub-genre. I’ve seen them but I don’t like them and they’re some of the few films that I’ve turned off and haven’t bothered to finish.
It’s like, I find decapitation funny. Why? Heck if I know but it probably has something to do with the fact that I was particularly horrified by the idea of decapitation when I was kid. I heard a story on the radio once about a man decapitated in a car accident and it was the worst thing I’d ever heard. A little scarred for life here. But I find it funny when I see it in a scary movie. I think it’s because if something hits us particularly close to home, our reactions tend to be more extreme. It’s either horrifying or hilarious. Decapitation is funny, rape more with the horrifying.
(But the tree rape in Evil Dead is somehow okay? I don’t always understand my brain either. There’s a line between reality and absurdity and somehow that scene manages to cross into absurdity.)
(Also, can you see why I couldn’t cover all of this in my video? I’m not done yet…)
It’s that line between fiction and reality. These films that stay too close to the reality side hit me in a bad way. I don’t like it.
Going back to the novelty, let’s talk about special effects. The special effects in horror films can be spectacular, if a bit gory. I love special effects. I’m much more into creature effects, like in The Thing, rather than body mutilation or pain inflicted on people if they’re too real (see above). Even then though, a lot of my enjoyment comes from context. Is a film mean spirited and really just about hurting people? I’m probably not going to like it. Is it about more and more creative ways a zombie can eat a person? Bring it on.
Another key aspect of horror movie watching, is how they engage our imaginations. When we’re younger, we believe more. We’re less able to distinguish between fact and fiction, fantasy and reality, and this can make horror movies a lot more terrifying for kids. As an adult, we know Poltergeist is kind of silly, as a child that sh*t is terrifying. Again it’s different for everyone, some of us have more active imaginations, some of us grow up faster. Pleasure and fear are psychological responses, less tempered by experience when we’re young. It’s part of why I couldn’t watch horror movies as a kid. It was too easy for me to believe they could be real or that something could really happen.
Also, kids can totally see ghosts so obviously they know Poltergeist could be real.
It’s not even that I’m no longer scared when I’m watching a horror movie. Since I’m now an adult and I know all of the things. I am still scared. A lot of times, I’m more scared than the horror newbies I’m watching with. But for me, I enjoy that feeling. It’s fun in it’s weird, twisted, albeit safe, way. A lot of people who don’t like horror movies simply don’t like the feeling of being scared and that’s totally fair.
Of course, not all sub-genres elicit the same emotions. Which is why someone who doesn’t like horror in general can still find horror movies to love. Maybe you don’t like slashers, doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t enjoy a good old-fashioned ghost movie. Or vice versa. It really is a genre that potentially has something to offer almost everyone.
I like horror movies because I think they are fun. I get that buzz of adrenaline, the rush from feeling the fear, and then ultimately that emotional release when my brain realizes it’s not real. I also enjoy the creativity in the storytelling. And the suggestion that there’s more to our world than meets the eye, that there is still room for fantasy and imagination. Maybe it’s something to do with the possibility that there’s more to our experience than just death and the end of all things.
For me, as a writer person, I also do just enjoy watching a clever, well written film. There is a lot of good writing to be found in the horror genre, witty dialogue, ironic turns, suspense and surprises. As a filmmaker, there are movies that are beautifully crafted, brilliant cinematography, and stories that are structured in smart, challenging ways. Sometimes you have to dig through a lot of crap to find them, but there are a lot of movies that can genuinely make you think.
Really, at the end of the day though, it just comes down to the fact that sometimes it’s just fun to be scared.
So bring it on.
Why do you watch horror movies? What scares you? Why do you keep coming back for more?
Check back for more horror movie writing and subscribe over on YouTube for all of the videos to come.