Let me begin by admitting that I’m not exactly a horror film fanatic. As someone whose youthful indiscretions include choosing Cinema Studies as an academic discipline, I’ve survived a substantial stake of horror films, but when it comes to being scared, real life is sufficient. For me, the question is not, “which horror film is scariest?” or even, “which horror film is best to see at the Royal at midnight?” but a far homelier question: simply, why? This year’s Halloween might be in our rearview now, but scaring the lights out of each other is an annual ritual with deep cultural roots. What gives fear its perennial popularity, and what gives horror cinema its immense popularity, not just this time of year, but throughout the seasons?
The enormous popularity of movies that evoke disgust, terror, or dread is a perplexing phenomenon. Presumably, people go to the movies to be entertained—an experience that usually entails enjoyment—so why do we seek out media that we know will unnerve us?
Human beings are predisposed to be frightened by certain stimuli, like sudden loud noises, or the sounds of an aggressive animal. The intrinsic nature of these fears guarantees the success of the genre’s scare techniques time after time. These days, jump scares are considered a horror cliche, and a cheap way to elicit fright. Still, jump scares remain in use because they continue to work.
The distortion of natural forms is most clearly featured in horror films’ monsters. Physical deformities set villains apart from their victims, as in both classic horror films and the modern slasher genre. Dracula (1931) and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) might be called “creature movies,” where our fright is derived from gazing upon the garish appearance of the titular monster.
Another way horror films work to evoke fright is through the endangerment of main characters. The viewer identifies and empathizes with the protagonist of the movie. Stalker or slasher films in particular devote considerable screen time to the fear of the protagonist. In Halloween (1978), Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode hides in a closet just feet from her would-be killer, suppressing her screams. Her fear is palpable through the screen, and her inability to keep silent contrasts the incessant silence of her killer. In this scene, the emphasis is not on the killer’s intention, or even the fearsomeness of the murder weapon, but Strode’s fright.
A deep well of academic literature exists on the subject of the female body in horror; much of this literature draws a well-established comparison between female violence in horror and female orgasm in pornography, and, as you might imagine, much of the study is psychoanalytic. Janet Leigh’s character’s death in Psycho (1960) offers another such example, as does Fay Wray in King Kong (1933). In these examples, the bodies of women on-screen embody fear and pain. As far as getting scared goes, much of the fright, fascination, or pleasure we derive from horror films is from witnessing women as vessels for pain, as objects of violence: of embodiments of feminine victimization. This might scare us by reminding us that these dangers exist in reality too, forcing us to come face-to-face with the injustices of the world.
But it is this ability for horror films to jolt and disturb that makes them entertaining. A major aspect of entertainment is excitement, and horror movies are tremendously, almost exceedingly, exciting. As a result of extreme audience reactions to The Exorcist (1973), which were said to include vomiting and fainting, Time magazine dubbed the response to the film “exorcist fever.” The lore around the film in turn increased its lure, and many film-goers cited the mythos around the film as enhancing their viewing experience. The arousal of excitement is what horror researchers Rob Tamborini and James Stiff have termed “like for fright” in a seminal research paper. Tamborini and Stiff also found certain personality traits that make an individual more likely to have a taste for horror. One of these traits is what they call “sensation seeking.” Individuals who hunger for experience, who are adventure-seeking or thrilling-seeking, and are susceptible to boredom are more likely to find horror films attractive, and less likely to be disturbed by horror elements.
I have a friend who told me that when she was a teenager and working her first job at an amusement park, part of her job was to inspect the rides at the beginning of the day to ensure they were functioning properly. She would check all the rides except the haunted house for the reason that she was terrified to go inside. She would report the haunted house was working and go on with her shift. Fair enough: haunted house are a kind of double feature of physical and psychological scare-elements.
Rollercoasters and haunted houses perform similar functions to horror films. In a sense, fair rides and horror films are kind of model muggings — a way for us to explore our fear response, for us to imagine ourselves in the context of danger, without saddling real risk. The fair ride, the horror film allows the fear response to exist untethered from reality. When we watch horror we are playing with notions of threat, repulsion, terror in a way that does not require we implicate ourselves and is devoid of consequence. This makes watching horror films a rather (and I mean no derision) childish past-time. Watching a horror film is an imaginative exercise, where one gets to test one’s limits and exorcise one’s curiosity for the morbid. The horror film viewer is watching with an oscillating trust that they are safe and the fear that they are not really safe. But, unlike in real life situations of danger, the horror film viewer, though a passive participant, is consenting. Just like my friend, we get to choose whether or not we go in the haunted house.
As far as getting scared goes, much of the fright, fascination, or pleasure we derive from horror films is from witnessing women as vessels for pain, as objects of violence: of embodiments of feminine victimization.