Why do we like horror movies?
A masked killer stalks his prey in the middle of the night. Ravenous zombies claw at the door. A ghost jumping out of the darkness. If we encountered any of these things in real life, we’d probably run away screaming. Put them in a movie and we’re on board.
But why do people like to search for horror movies? What is it in our brains, our psychology and our culture that makes us want to be afraid?
Part of it comes down to the many ways our brain experiences, interprets and contextualizes fear, and that’s still a bit of a mystery, says Ajay Saputeassistant professor of psychology at Northeastern.
However, Satpute tries to unravel it, one scare at a time.
Satpute, which also serves as senior faculty member at the Experiential AI Institute, fear of studies not as an instinctive set of survival behaviors but as a subjective experience, which can be very different for each person. He says that although fear is a powerful emotion, humans are not necessarily born with innate fears. In line with psychological constructionist theory, Satpute says humans are born with the ability to feel affective states – pleasure and pain, drowsiness and arousal – but emotions, such as fear, are learned. They are the brain’s way of learning what certain body signals mean before interpreting and contextualizing them.
“The key distinction is that fear itself isn’t innate — that part is learned — but avoidance can be there,” Satpute says. “You were born with defensive behaviors like many species are.”
As director of the Affective and Brain Sciences Laboratory, Satpute has also studied exactly which parts of the brain activate when we are afraid. Contrary to assumptions that there is a central network of shared fear in our brains, Satpute found that brain regions that predict or respond to fear are widespread.
“The prevailing hypothesis is that there is this central fear network or these central fear zones or a neural signature of fear that will predict fear in all situations,” says Sattute. “In our study, we actually tried to test this and found that the vast majority of brain regions that predict fear only do so in specific situations.”
What is known, says Satpute, is that the human brain reacts differently to a horror movie than to a truly life-threatening situation – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a gray area.
“When it comes to jump scares, understanding that something is a simulation or not real doesn’t mean that whatever sensory systems we have won’t respond,” Satpute says. “You control all of your sensory input because you anticipate that you’re going to get a jump. You are essentially regulating your sensory input to reduce the startle effect.
But why do people crave the harrowing, bodily experience of a horror movie? Satpute says there are several possible neurological reasons why audiences can’t get enough of the horror.
For some people, this is excitement-seeking behavior. Humans operate on a natural cycle of wakefulness and wakefulness, but also use external stimuli, such as certain types of music or movies, to regulate this cycle. A postdoctoral student in Satpute’s lab has done work that shows how voluntary exposure to pain can cause someone to release endorphins and feel better after pain. Satpute says something similar could happen with fear.
“When you’re scared it’s not great in the moment, but when it goes away there’s this release and euphoria and it’s really rewarding,” Satpute says. “If you really want to have that wake-up time in life where all the senses are activated, a little fear can’t hurt.”
Horror movies could, in a way, also serve as educational material for the brain, says Satpute. The brain is wired to try to predict its internal and external environment. When someone watches a horror movie, the brain can use the horrific situations on screen as a kind of covert simulation, what Satpute calls “indirect fear.”
“At least since we started telling each other stories, we can imagine that it is a way of transmitting and learning,” says Satpute. “In that sense, it’s like the brain uses that information to build mental models to guide behavior if those situations come our way.”
Kendall Phillips, author of ‘A Cinema of Hopelessness’ and ‘Projected Fears’ and host of the radio show Pop Life, says there are also deeper cultural and sociological reasons why people continue to flock to horror films.
The genre has a deep history dating back to Universal’s “Dracula” in 1931, and its appeal has remained constant. In fact, horror movies seem almost market-proof, even in 2022 when the theatrical experience is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and streaming. Recent horror movies like “Barbaric” and “Smile” had sustained success at the box office. Phillips traces it all back to something inherent to the genre.
“For me, it boils down to a need to process the different fears of the real world and think about, how do we understand a world that can be very scary?” he says. “It shows us a mirror of the world that is distorted and terrifying and yet somehow feels right.”
It’s no coincidence that horror has thrived, creatively and financially, during tumultuous times. The films themselves may not always directly represent the anxieties and fears of the time, but audiences still find some kind of solace in seeing the fear onscreen.
“Dracula” was released during the Great Depression. The second Golden Age of Horror ran from 1968 to 1982 and included classics like “Night of the Living Dead”, “Rosemary’s Baby”, “Halloween”, and “Friday the 13th”. This coincided with the Vietnam War, anti-war and civil rights movements, and the Watergate scandal.
“Of course, no surprise, now it’s back,” Phillips says.
“All this horror of the last 15 to 20 years has been centered on how the system has failed, we are in an era of no hope, there is no authority,” adds Phillips. “If you want to be saved, you will have to do it yourself. … It’s kind of a “trust no one” moment.
Of course, at the center of the best horror movies is a big monster, whether it’s a killer like Michael Myers, the classic “Halloween” villain, or a creature like Dracula. Horror movie monsters are essential to the longevity of the genre, not only because they provide scares and thrills, but, like the movies themselves, tap into something deeper.
“There’s something about even the most evil monster that’s appealing because it’s unrelated, but also likable in that it doesn’t fit in,” Phillips says.
Going back to the origins of horror film, Universal’s 1931 “Frankenstein” embodies the best that the movie monster can do for audiences. The creation of Dr. Frankenstein wasn’t born a monster — he’s a misfit, a hulking, curious, frightened child. And who can’t relate to that?
Modern horror maestro Guillermo del Toro recently said, “Horror is a sanctuary of imperfection and tells you it’s okay to be a monster.” If fear is a mirror, as del Toro says, then when we go to the theater we are looking for more than cheap thrills. We are looking for each other.
“We’re all freaks at the end of the day,” del Toro says. “Can we live with this?”
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