Why People Love Horror Movies

This time of year, screens big and small entertain our basest instincts with horrifying gore, monsters, insanity and the supernatural. Although considered a mostly niche genre, horror films enjoy an avid following and rake in plenty of bucks at the box office.

It’s not merely an attraction to blood and gore, experts say. People who liked the “Saw” series, for instance, wouldn’t necessarily derive such pleasure from watching a steer being slaughtered in a meat-processing plant. Researchers say one reason we watch is because the thrill calls up primal behavior, mainly in males, to assess threat levels. (The typical horror-flick viewer is a male adolescent between the ages of 15 and 45.)

“People go to horror films because they want to be frightened or they wouldn’t do it twice,” says Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Goldstein edited a book on the subject titled, “Why We Watch: The Attractions of Violent Entertainment” (Oxford University Press).

“You choose your entertainment because you want it to affect you. That’s certainly true of people who go to entertainment products like horror films that have big effects. They want those effects,” Goldstein said.

He and other social scientists suggest we watch for different reasons, which include enjoying the adrenaline rush, being distracted from mundane life, vicariously thumbing our noses at social norms, and enjoying a voyeuristic glimpse of the horrific from a safe distance.

New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux has mapped out neuron by neuron how the brain’s fear system works. He says the complex human brain with its enormous capacity for thinking, reasoning, and just plain musing, allows us to worry in ways other animals can’t.

That is, fear is not merely a biological reaction, but an emotion derived from both deep-seeded evolutionary factors as well as newly learned cautions. Conversations between the brain’s primitive amygdala and the more recently acquired cortex allow humans to interpret an environmental event and respond with an emotion such as fear.

Scary movies can play on this, LeDouz says, “If you have a good imagination, you can connect to your hardwired fears simply by thinking about a scary situation.”

So far, though, the amygdala has the upper hand in the fear response. “This may explain why, once an emotion is aroused, it is so hard for us to turn it off,” he says. If we like that sort of thing, it may account for why we’re so eager to turn it back on again.


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