Halloween is just around the corner and along with the parade of adorable elves and fairies knocking on your door come some more unsettling phenomena: spooky haunted houses, wild parties and, perhaps most garishly, a new onslaught of ghastly horror movies.
If you’re not a fan of horror movies, you might be wondering why some people enjoy watching such movies so much. Behavioral scientists have even coined a term for this: the “horror paradox”.
“Undoubtedly, there’s something really powerful that makes people look at these things because it doesn’t make sense,” says Joanne Cantor, PhD, director of the Center for Communications Research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “Most people like to experience pleasant emotions.”
Defenders of these films may say they are just harmless entertainment. But if their appeal is strong, says Cantor, so is their impact.
Is the fear you feel watching someone being chased by an axe-wielding killer different than the fear you might feel if you were? actually being hunted by an axe-wielding killer?
You’re not really in danger when the violence is on a screen. But your body gets nervous.
When people look at horrific images, their heart rate increases by up to 15 beats per minute, Sparks says. Her palms sweat, her skin temperature drops several degrees, her muscles tense, and her blood pressure rises.
“The brain hasn’t really adapted to the new technology [of movies]’ says Sparks. “We can convince ourselves that the images on the screen aren’t real, but emotionally our brain reacts as if they are.”
When Sparks studied the physical effects of violent films on young men, he noticed a strange pattern: the more scared they felt, the more they claimed to enjoy the film. Why? Sparks thinks scary movies may be one of the last remnants of a rite of passage.
“There is a reason [that] In our culture, men have to deal with threatening situations,” says Sparks. “This goes back to the initiation rites of our tribal ancestors, where entering manhood was associated with hardship. We’ve lost that in modern society, and we may have found ways to replace it in our entertainment preferences.”
In that regard, Sparks says the gorier the film, the more justified the young man feels bragging about enduring it.
There are other theories that explain the appeal of scary movies. James B. Weaver III, PhD, says many young people are attracted to them simply because adults disapprove of them. Adults may have a morbid curiosity at play—the same kind that makes us stare at freeway crashes, Cantor suggests. People may have an innate need to be aware of the dangers around us, particularly the kind that could harm us physically, she says.
Another theory is that people seek violent entertainment to deal with actual fear or violence. Sparks points to a study that showed that shortly after a college student was murdered in a community, interest in a film depicting a cold-blooded murder increased, both among women in the dorm and in the community at large.
A popular explanation for the appeal of scary movies, expressed by novelist Stephen King, is that they act as a sort of safety valve for our cruel or aggressive impulses. The implication of this idea, which academics call “symbolic catharsis,” is that watching violence preempts the need to act it out.
Media researchers disagree. They point out that violent media is more likely to make people feel more hostile, see the world that way, and be haunted by violent ideas and images.
In one experiment, Weaver showed violent films (starring Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal) to college students several nights in a row. The next day, while the students were taking a simple test, a research assistant manhandled them. Those who had seen the violent films suggested harsher punishment for the rude assistant than students who had seen non-violent films.
“Watching these movies actually made people more callous and punitive,” says Weaver, a researcher in Emory University’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education. “They can actually shape the idea that aggression or violence is the way to resolve conflict.”
For some people, scary movies are just too much – especially for children.
In surveys of her students, Cantor found that nearly 60% said something they saw before the age of 14 had disturbed their sleep or waking life. Cantor has collected hundreds of essays from students who became afraid of water or clowns, who had obsessive thoughts about horrific images, or who were disturbed at the mere mention of certain films, such as Nightmare on Elm Street. More than a quarter of the students said they were still afraid.
Cantor theorizes that the brain stores memories of these movies in the amygdala, which plays an important role in generating emotions. She says these movie memories could evoke similar responses to those evoked by actual trauma — and may be just as difficult to erase.
For more information on this topic, see Why We Love Fear, an episode of the WebMD podcast, Health Discovered.