Why We Love Scary Movies

photo of nightmare image of ghost-like figure in h

Halloween is nigh, and along with the parade of adorable elves and fairies knocking on your door come some more disturbing phenomena: scary haunted houses, wild parties and, perhaps most jarringly, a new onslaught of ghastly horror films. 

If you’re not a horror movie fan, you may be puzzled about why some people love watching such movies. Behavioral researchers even coined a phrase for it: the “horror paradox.”

“No doubt, there’s something really powerful that brings people to watch these things, because it’s not logical,” says Joanne Cantor, PhD, director of the Center for Communication Research at University of Wisconsin, Madison. “Most people like to experience pleasant emotions.”

Defenders of these movies may say they’re just harmless entertainment. But if their attraction is powerful, Cantor says, so is their impact. 

Scary Movies: The Fear Is Real

Is the fear you feel when you watch someone being chased by an axe-wielding murderer any different from the fear you might feel if you were actually being chased by an axe-wielding murderer?

You’re not really in danger when the violence is on a screen. But your body does get jittery.

 When people watch horrific images, their heartbeat increases as much as 15 beats per minute, Sparks says. Their palms sweat, their skin temperature drops several degrees, their muscles tense, and their blood pressure spikes.

“The brain hasn’t really adapted to the new technology [of movies],” Sparks says. “We can tell ourselves the images on the screen are not real, but emotionally our brain reacts as if they are.”

When Sparks studied the physical effects of violent movies on young men, he noticed a strange pattern: The more fear they felt, the more they claimed to enjoy the movie. Why? Sparks believes scary movies may be one of the last vestiges of a rite of passage.

“There’s a motivation [that] males have in our culture to master threatening situations,” Sparks says. “It goes back to the initiation rites of our tribal ancestors, where the entrance to 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 this context, Sparks says, the gorier the movie, the more justified the young man feels in boasting that he endured it.

Morbid Fascination

There are other theories to explain the appeal of scary movies. James B. Weaver III, PhD, says many young people may be attracted to them merely because adults frown on them. For adults, morbid curiosity may be at play — the same kind that causes us to stare at crashes on the highway, suggests Cantor. Humans may have an innate need to stay aware of dangers in our environment, especially the kind that could do us bodily harm, she says.

Yet another theory suggests that people may seek out violent entertainment as a way of coping with actual fears or violence. Sparks points to a study that showed that shortly after the murder of a college student in a community, interest in a movie showing a cold-blooded murder increased, both among women in the student’s dormitory and in the community at large.

One 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 dub “symbolic catharsis,” is that watching violence forestalls the need to act it out.

Media researchers disagree. They point out that violent media is more likely to make people feel more hostile, to view the world that way, and to be haunted by violent ideas and images.

In an experiment, Weaver showed violent films (with stars like Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal) to college students for several nights in a row. The next day, while the students took a simple test, a research assistant treated them rudely. Those who had watched the violent films suggested a harsher punishment for the rude assistant than students who had watched nonviolent films. 

“Watching these films actually made people more callous and more punitive,” says Weaver, a researcher at Emory University’s department of behavioral sciences and health education. “You can actually prime the idea that aggression or violence is the way to resolve conflict.”
 

Lingering Effects

For some people, scary movies are just too much – especially children.

In surveys of her students, Cantor found that nearly 60% reported that something they had watched before age 14 had upset their sleep or waking life. Cantor has collected hundreds of essays by students who became afraid of water or clowns, who had obsessive thoughts of horrible images, or who became disturbed even at the mention of certain movies, such as Nightmare on Elm Street. More than a quarter of the students said they were still fearful.

Cantor suspects that the brain may store memories of these films in the amygdala, which plays an important role in generating emotions. She says these film memories may produce similar reactions to those produced by actual trauma — and may be just as hard to erase.

For more on this topic, listen to “Why We Love Fear,” an episode of WebMD’s podcast, Health Discovered.