Why We Watch Scary Movies

staff Articles

Scary movies do different things to different people for different reasons. One particular reason to examine is the “what would you do” factor. Almost in any sub-genre of horror films, the audience is forced to ask themselves how they would handle this situation. Whether you’re facing a zombie apocalypse or a mad man trying to get into your vacation cabin, most audiences will challenge themselves sub-consciously by subjecting themselves to this temporary fear.

As indicated in the video, having fear triggers a survival instinct that we all have. With a more evolved mind that includes rationale and reasoning, the challenge to survive is created instinctually by horror movies. In addition to survival instincts, dark humor is a contributing factor that allows audiences to feel primal while knowing as they enter into a theater, they’re watching make believe stories. The third motive could be described as a “purging” of dark personal thoughts. Aristotle thought when a person exposes himself to horror, they’re doing so in a private self-reflection to the darkness that lives in all of us. This concept is called Catharsis.

The video also addresses how and why scary movies are watched. Out of the 4 theories, thrill watching and problem watching are two strong ideas that support the need to be put in an intense situation (thrill) where you’re forced to test yourself (problem). It should also go without saying that there are many factors that affect the desired response from those with specific, psychological makeups. The true art in horror films is being able to craft a story that triggers those instincts.

Writer and blogger Raquel Rivera shares the following:

To begin with, I’ve only proactively decided to watch a horror movie a few times in my life. Those movies have been One Missed Call (2008), The Cabin in the Woods (2012), and the upcoming movie, Crimson Peak, which will be released in October of this year. These movies are ones that I willingly went to, and in the case of the latter, am willing to go to see. There was one movie that I saw – the first Insidious movie – that did not have so much a proactive decision to do so as that I was hanging out with a cousin of mine and we decided to watch it together. The same can be said of the movie, Jaws. Besides those, I have not really seen any other horror movies. I very clearly have a lack of experience with horror films.

But with the small experience I do have with horror films, as well as the experience from horror games and television shows like Supernatural and Penny Dreadful, my top three motivations for watching a scary movie, or anything deemed in the area of “scary” or “horror”, is that it is a “good” story, its very atmospheric, and – this has more to do with films than anything else – has actors that I like and know. I know that last point is more sad than anything, but it is true. I only decided to watch The Cabin in the Woods because it was directed by Joss Whedon, had Chris Hemsworth as well as Fran Kranz. For Crimson Peak, besides looking like an incredibly good gothic horror film, it has my favorite actor, Tom Hiddleston, in it, as well as Jim Beaver and Mia Wasikowska. Also, being directed by Guillermo del Toro is a big plus as well. As one can see, it is a more recent trend. One Missed Call is the exception to this, but only because back then I did not care for horror at all. It is only recently that I have become increasingly interested in the horror genre in general.

Despite that, favorite, familiar faces are not the only thing that helps get my attention. As a writer and an inspiring author, a good story will certainly bring me in. To me, a good story is one that is narrative driven. I stories. I love seeing how they unfold. Stories are what drive me and fill me with life, hence why I am a writer. If their is no story to be found, I instantly lose my interest. So it is imperative there is a story, and a well written one at that. Stories that are poorly written are immensely cringe-worthy. This is true in films as well. Nothing, however, bets tragedy for me. I am a sucker for tragedy. I also am apparently secretly sadistic. (For fictional characters only!)

When it comes to the horror genre, there is another factor that must play into account. A story must be psychological. I care less about the monster I can see and more about what my imagination can come up with. This does not just apply to actual monsters, but other characters in the work as well. But speaking of monsters, my psychological horror must have the goal of survival to it. The unexplained (or what seems like at first) – in other words, the supernatural, or what appears to be the supernatural -is good at helping to play up on the psychological part. But it also helps establish one thing: a monster. There is nothing better in horror than knowing there is a monster, or more than one monster, lurking all around, waiting, stalking, and hunting you down. However, distance from the monster, like I mentioned before, is key. Surviving the monster is even better. While I love tragedy, I am also in love with the idea of hope in a story. I love the idea of surviving all odds in a horror story – the tale of surviving what seems and appears as an incredibly hopeless situation. I may be a writer who loves the torturing of characters, but that does not mean I do not want them to succeed.

The third factor of motivation to watch a horror film is that it is very atmospheric. The visuals and sound are everything about a horror film. It is extremely important. Without that, it is very hard to immerse one’s self in the story. No immersion into a horror story means distance between the movie and audience. That distance is bad. It means that I, as the audience member, am not taking your movie seriously, and even more so, probably going to become quickly disinterested, if I am not already. Immersion is what helps make horror films “scary”. Without it, a horror film is just horrible and boring.

The two approaches listed in the video, “The Psychology of Scary Movies”, that seem particularly applicable to my viewing habits are Dolf Zillman’s Excitation Transfer Theory and Nöel Carroll’s Curiosity & Fascination theory. Zillman’s theory applies because I do seem to notice that for Horror stories when there is a good ending that the fear I experience disappears and I am then excited for said ending. But, like the guy said, my enjoyment is much higher during the “scary” parts then afterward. Carrol’s theory is certainly applicable to me as horror continuously alights my curiosity. Just as much so, does it fascinate me. Horror, while it can raise my anxiety through the roof, always lures me back in. Horror is its own thing. The guy is right in saying that horror has indescribable element to it that makes it so fascinating.