Darkness falls across the land, the midnight hour is close at hand. Creatures crawl in search of blood, to terrorize y’all’s neighborhood. And whosoever shall be found, without the soul for getting down, must stand and face the hounds of hell, and rot inside a corpse’s shell.
The foulest stench is in the air, the funk of forty thousand years. And grizzly ghouls from every tomb, are closing in to seal your doom. And though you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver. For no mere mortal can resist, the evil of the thriller!
Considered by those in the music industry to be ground-breaking for its time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller (and album of the same name) would go on to sell more than 60 million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling album of all time. The creeping terror, dread, and horror themes from the above lyrics adds to the chilling atmosphere of the song; its impact and popularity was in no small part also because of the music video that accompanied the track. The video features zombies and ghouls emerging from a cemetery and an ensuing movie monster chase scene which, by today’s standards, might be considered somewhat of a trope for the horror movie genre. That, however, hasn’t stopped it from racking up more than 550 million views on YouTube; a testament to the song’s popularity and the appeal of horror themes in the entertainment industry.
A New York Times report estimates that in 2017, horror movies raked in $733 million in ticket sales, thanks to releases such as It and Anabelle: Creation. In 2018, Netflix added both The Haunting of Hill House and American Horror Story to its list of offerings, and the lead-up to the release of the classic Halloween movie in late October of the same year suggests that movie fanatics have, among them, loyal enthusiasts of the horror genre. Regardless of whether the main threat is a murderous clown, a possessed doll, or a haunted house, they all seem to share common characteristics.
While we might associate horror with fear, psychologists claim that they are indeed, different emotions. Indeed, Psychologists James Weaver and Ron Tamborini define horror as an emotion that “encompasses fear of an uncertain or existential threat” and, importantly, “disgust over its potential aftermath” . Indeed, the disgust component of horror appears to be a key element that distinguishes this emotions from other forms of fear such as terror and dread, for example. Film scholar and philosopher Noël Carroll states that horror elicited by threatening stimuli or beings that are perceived as impure – leading to the target being evaluated as being both threatening and disgusting . The element of impurity seems to suggest that anything that taints our senses, like bodily defilement, are crucial in making something not just terrifying, but also horrific.
What makes something horrifying? The psychologist Glenn Walters proposes that the three components in horror features are: (1) tension of an impending, looming threat, (2) a relevant, identifiable threat and (3) unrealism. Put another way, horror movies are appealing in that they follow a certain formula: They introduce a creeping fear of things that viewers can identify with. This source of horror presents itself as an unnatural, repulsive, unpredictable, and uncontrollable existential threat . Horror entertainment, however and wherever people enjoy it, is importantly contained within safe environments. The element of safety in our immediate environment confers a sense of control, allowing us to experience the thrill of horror without actually being threatened by what we see on screen.
Despite being an unpleasant and distressing experience, you probably know of someone that enjoys a good horror movie scare every so often. One meta-analysis of 35 studies (a study analyzing and summarizing the results of multiple, individuals studies) by Cynthia Hoffner and Kenneth Levine shows that, somewhat paradoxically, individuals experiencing greater unpleasant emotions when viewing horror movies also reported greater enjoyment of fright and violence. Interestingly, whether or not the horror movie ended on a negative note – the threat or danger was not resolved, had no effect on people’s enjoyment of the movie . Put together, the findings suggest that individuals watching horror movies are likely experiencing a boost of positive emotions, like excitement, from threatening scenes and themes. And, it didn’t seem to matter at the end if the threat remains (e.g. the bad guy wins). The results from this meta-analysis provide support for one part of what psychologists call ‘excitation-transfer theory,’ suggesting that the physiological arousal we experience from watching horror movies is indistinguishable in terms of its source . This means that our physiological system does a less than accurate job of distinguishing between chills from thrills, leading horror movie buffs to experience being scared and frightened as arousing and enjoyable instead.
The research in this area too, suggests that individuals with certain traits are more likely to enjoy horror movies than others. The same meta-analysis by Hoffner and Levine showed that individuals high on empathic concern and personal distress were less likely to enjoy fright and violence. That is, individuals who are more likely to vicariously experience the pain and suffering of others were unlikely to enjoy the on-screen torments of teenagers being pursued by a psychopathic masked murderer. Those high on sensation-seeking tendencies (the tendency of seeking intense, risky experiences for their own sake) were more likely to enjoy fright and violence. Finally, one other study also shows that an individual’s ‘need for affect’ also determines whether they seek our horror movie thrills or otherwise. Need for affect is the “general motivation for an individual to approach or avoid situations and activities that are emotion inducing for themselves and others” . Examining movie goers who regularly attended drama and horror movies, researchers found that those with a high need for affect were motivated to behave in a manner which amplified their experience of negative and ambivalent emotions – and to evaluate these experiences more positively later on . The need for such intense, high levels of emotional arousal may explain why some people to seek out experiences that may, on the surface level, appear negative or ambivalent – and that includes viewing horror movies.
While we don’t know if there’s any research suggesting any psychological benefits of watching horror movies, the science shows that some of us enjoy the genre more so than others; and those among us might even enjoy a slight boost of positivity as a result. If horror movies are your thing, then enjoy them as you would any other form of entertainment. Happy Halloween!