Investigating what makes horror movies so popular.
Whether it’s a classic film like Psycho, a psychological thriller like The Cabin In The Woods or a paranormal feature like The Conjuring, horror movies have always been a prevalent part of the film industry. Statistics from Our Theatrical Market show that market shares for the genre have increased by a whopping five percent in the last year despite the impacts in the film industry with the pandemic. Why do people enjoy the fear associated with the genre, and what makes horror films so bone-chilling?
For someone to enjoy a horror movie, they need to know that the terror that unveiling on their screen is not real. In the article “Why Do We Like Watching Scary Films?”, Dr. Mark D. Griffiths indicates that people watch horror movies because they acknowledge that the happenings in horror movies will not occur to them in real life. A study conducted by Haidt, McCauley, and Rosin in 1994 found similar results that people were more likely to watch gory horror movies than real clips of disturbing scenes.
Another psychological reason behind why people like horror movies lies in catharsis. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as, “Purification or purgation of the emotions (such as pity and fear) primarily through art.” In the horror movie genre, catharsis could be when individuals watch horror movies to release aggression and stress that they otherwise would not be able to get rid of. As horror movies are depictions of uncomfortable themes that people would otherwise not acknowledge, watching things happen without having the actual consequences of the occurrence helps people ease their fears.
In addition to audiences being able to get rid of unpleasant feelings, some people enjoy the intense relief they get after the fear involved in the movie is over. According to Pittsburgh-based sociologist Dr. Margee Kerr, the feeling after the rush of the fight-or-flight response can be very relieving for some people. “Our arousal system is activated and triggers a cascade of ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters and hormones like endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline that influence our brains and our bodies,” she told Huffington Post. “All it takes is a moment to realize that we’re safe and switch over to laughter and joy.” Also, laughing during a horror movie could be because of the excitement of watching something scary. “Perhaps one of the most common responses to a horror film is actually laughter.” says, professor Aaron Kerner from San Francisco State University. “Even if we jump and scream, this is often followed by laughter (especially if we’re watching with a group)…There is an excitement in the terror, especially afterward.”
In addition to psychology, film producers must consider the factors that generate fear and suspense. Films in the horror genre “deal with similar subject matter including fear of death, loss of identity and ‘The Other,’” according to professor Susan Tavernetti, Chair of the Film/TV Department at De Anza College. While having those components, film producers must also consider the following three things to attract a bigger audience: the visuals, the sounds and the perception of the viewer.
The first component is the visuals of a movie. Psychologically, humans are wired to think that seeing blood is life-threatening, so the first response of the body is alarm and concern. Additionally, the body prepares for blood loss in response to watching horror movies with bloody scenes, as Coagulation Factor VII that causes blood clotting, is increased. Masks and dolls also scare the audience because the absence of visual cues and emotions makes their intentions behind tormenting unclear.
Another part of the movie is the sound effects. Distressed animal sounds are non-linear, which is when sounds have a higher amplitude compared to normal noises produced by musical instruments regularly. The rarity of the sounds causes distress and feelings of uncertainty within the human mind. Along with irregular pitched noises, sounds that are well below the range of hearing within the human ear, also known as infrasound, can instill dread. Although humans can’t hear them, infrasound is known to produce anxiety, extreme sorrow, and chills. The article The Science of Silence: Disquieting Uses of Infrasound in Movies describes that in the movie Friday the 13th, Harry Manfredini, the composer of the pieces in the movie, used instrumental noises that people were able to identify but processed the sounds so that the frequency can’t be associated with the instrument itself. With more advanced sound technologies introduced, infrasound will most likely be in use more frequently and with more intensity in the future.
Finally, the political and societal views of the audience are another factor in how scary the movie is. There is no clear answer to what happens after death; horror movies use that to their advantage and feature ghosts. Fear of the dark is a common fear, so the events in the movie happen at night. Horror movies also tend to reflect social issues of the time. For instance, the 2017 remake of It came after the killer clown sightings in 2016. Consequently, the audience has added fear from the events before the movie was out in theatres. Societal views of certain periods can be analyzed in film history and trends of cinema over the years. “After 1950, the evil usually can’t be vanquished — whether a vampire, a zombie or antagonists such as Jason (Friday the 13th franchise) or Michael Myers (Halloween franchise),” said Tavernetti. “The inability to rid the world of evil suggests that filmmakers and society in general have a much darker view of the world now.”
Making Their Mark
Although horror is not a genre for everyone, it allows people to explore their fears and perceptions while being in the comfort and safety of their own homes. With unique sound technologies, detailed psychological reasoning behind the movie sets and their awareness of societal trends throughout history, horror movies made themselves a prominent part of the big screen. Their unconventional storylines and controversial themes are all a part of the genre and serve to make these movies truly terrifying.