On Halloween we prepare to celebrate the weird and downright scary, with many of us opting to watch horror films.
Abundant in bloody limbs and possessed children, our brains should surely be programmed to avoid these films at all costs. So why is it that millions of us flock to the cinema or curl up in the dark and willingly expose ourselves to the gore and violence?
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Millions of years of evolutionary psychology has given our minds in-built triggers for fear: fear of the dark where predators may lie in wait, or fear of animals with large teeth that could eat us alive. In our evolutionary history, these were very real fears, but in modern society they are almost redundant except when they are exploited by horror films and ‘scare attractions’.
When a person is afraid, the amygdala, an area in the brain responsible for learnt fear, triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is what causes our palms to sweat, pupils to dilate, and pumps the body with dopamine and adrenaline.
A recent study by Dr David Zald, Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University, USA showed that some people’s brains lack what he calls the ‘brakes’ on dopamine release – meaning that they’re more attracted to being scared.
Our bodies respond to both genuine and fabricated fear in the same way, but feelings of pleasure rely on the individual and whether a person subconsciously knows they are safe. Perhaps this can explain how we can enjoy scary experiences.
Psychologist Dr. Glenn D. Walters highlights three requirements for the attraction to horror films or experiences. The first is tension and is often created when clever camera angles, plot surprises and spine-tingling soundtracks come together to create a classical ‘horror’ feel.
Relevance to the audience is also important. You may have also noticed that horror films often tend to pick a ‘normal’ group of characters and then inflict very abnormal event upon them. The belief that you, the viewer, could find yourself in that very situation, is what makes these films scarier.
The final requirement is an aspect of unrealism. Despite the graphic nature of most horror films, we are all aware on some level that what we are seeing is not, and cannot, be real. It may sound counterintuitive, but most viewers are in fact attracted to films and experiences where there are reminders that the film is fictional and cannot harm them.
In 1994, Haidt, McCauley and Rozin carried out some research into disgust. They showed college students three documentary videos of real-life horrors, one of which was a child’s facial skin being pulled back ready for surgery. Ninety percent of students turned off the video before it had finished, and those who did make it to the end said that they had found the content disturbing.
And yet many of the very same individuals admitted that they would pay money to watch a horror film with more blood and gore in it than the videos they had watched. The reasoning that McCauley decided upon was that the fictional nature of horror films gives viewers a sense of control because it places ‘psychological distance’ between them and the terrible acts they are watching.
For this reason, techniques such as the use of black humour and mock horror can make horror more palatable somehow. Over-exaggerated gore reminds the audience that surely what they’re seeing is laughably unrealistic.
Equally, when exploring a horror maze it could be reassuring to see a human shoe surface from under Dracula’s cape. When we commit ourselves to watching a horror film or attending a ‘scare attraction’, we know that what we’re about to see is only a constructed reality, even if we do have to remind ourselves of this sometimes!
The need for unrealism might explain why watching Jaws at the age of ten means that you’ve never looked at the sea the same way since. Children find it more difficult to separate fiction from reality, especially when receiving it visually. There’s evidence that younger viewers who perceive greater realism in horror films are more negatively affected by horror films than viewers who perceive the film as unreal.
Greek Philosopher Aristotle might not have been around to witness The Shining, but in his time he thought that people indulged in scary stories and dramatic plays because it was a way of ridding themselves of negative feelings. This process he called ‘catharsis’ and the term is still used today. However, we know from much more recent studies that watching violence tends to encourage violence rather than creating a relaxing effect.
In 1978, Dr. Dolf Zillman proposed the ‘Excitation Transfer’ theory whereby negative feelings of fear during the film intensify the feeling of relief when the main character manages to narrowly escape. But what about a hero who doesn’t survive? Audiences also often show most excitement in the scarier parts of horror films.
Another theory put forth by Marvin Zuckerman in 1979, proposed that people who scored high in the Sensation Seeking Scale (take the test yourself!) often reported a greater interest in exciting things like rollercoasters, bungee jumping and as you might expect, horror films.
This seems to make sense and researchers have found correlation but it isn’t always significant. It should be noted that picking only one trait dismisses the fact that people are attracted to horror films for a number of reasons. Equally someone who likes rollercoasters doesn’t necessarily like horror.
There are lots of theories about why we enjoy the very things that are designed to terrify us. However, due to the complexity of the brain and human nature it proves difficult to narrow down an exact answer, or to understand how people can have such differing view of horror. It seems that it will, like any good horror film would, retain an element of mystery.