Stephen King, Scream, Silent Hill.
Horror encompasses a multitude of genres and a legion of fans. But why do some people love horror while others hate it? For some, wanting to be frightened makes no sense. But for horror fans, well, it’s quite literally in the name. For them, the frightening aspect is the highlight of it.
That’s because art-horror is different from real-life fear. Natural terror arises from primal survival instincts, and this explains our deep fear of dying. That feeling is not comparable to the thrill watching a serial killer hunting their victims.
If you’re not a horror fan, you’ve probably wondered why anyone would pay for and watch content designed to distress them. If you enjoy stories where fear and intrigue dominate the audience, you’ve likely asked yourself why it’s so entertaining. Either way, we can provide an answer using psychology.
The Elements of Horror
Check if this sounds familiar: A regular group of people comes across an evil-natured person, creature or force. Said evil element creates chaos and suffering, so it must be challenged, defeated or outlived. Usually, the story cares little for the events and focuses on the nature of the entity. Monsters in horror are threatening and impure[1,3] because its essence goes against laws of nature. Ghosts, for example, are simultaneously living and dead.
This portrayal of monsters evokes two emotions: fear and disgust. Naturally, these reactions are not powerful or long-lasting because we’re aware that it’s fictional. Thought Theory states that being art-horrified means being scared of the possibility that the story was real. Furthermore, the captivation elicited by the narration outweighs the negative sensations of fear and disgust, allowing it to still be a pleasant experience.
The Voice of Horror
The three main reasons why people enjoy horror are tension, relevance, and unrealism. When it comes to the horror genre, the typical writing style aims to maximise these elements. Tension is present when the audience is continuously shocked and surprised. Relevance comes from including relatable themes or characters. Unrealism, on the other hand, makes sure to point out that the story is fiction. By exploiting these three tools, horror stories ensure that people are horrified and delighted in equal amounts.
This clear-cut formula also means that horror stories are unavoidably predictable. Of course the family is going to buy that haunted house in the middle of nowhere; of course someone is going to explore the basement. And, although having our expectations subverted may enhance the experience, having a standard narrative isn’t totally a bad thing.
Horror exploits our curiosity about monsters and the process of their discovery. It’s not only about uncovering the existence of a monster, but also highlighting that some things cannot be understood through logic. For that reason, horror stories tend to increase the number of unanswered questions instead of reducing it. In the case of a book, this is what creates a page-turning phenomenon. And, when the dreadful threats are removed in the end, we feel satisfied. This sensation could be called a “cognitive pleasure”.
The Anatomy of Horror
People that like horror movies tend to like intense emotions like fear. And, like all other emotions, fear elicits a physiological response. Watching a horror movie places us in what feels like a life-threatening situation and our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode. Our breathing and heartbeat accelerates, our muscles tense, and we’re prone to scream and jump. Cortisol (also known as the “stress hormone”) and adrenaline rise in the bloodstream. The adrenaline rush leads to unexpected feelings of pleasure, and about 10% of the population enjoys this rush.
The sense of pleasure is also heightened by the release of dopamine. In fact, watching horror movies comforts some people who have anxiety. In their case, the increased sense of well-being comes from their brains winding down after the artificial stress is over. This, however, is clearly not for everyone. Even within the horror fandom, some seek the emotional catharsis instead of the physical release.
The Feeling of Horror
It may seem strange to think that someone might enjoy the onset of fear and disgust caused by art-horror. However, the negative connotation may come from the scenarios and not from the emotions themselves. Sometimes, people just enjoy being scared. Think of roller-coaster lovers, for example.
Control theory explains how people enjoy negative emotions when they are ‘in control’ of the situation. The fictional nature of horror places a psychological distance between the person and the on-screen violence. In fact, the more realistic movies are, the more viewers feel affected.
This effect is comparable to video games. The person holding the controller tends to have a stronger physiological reaction than an observer. However, both player and watcher feel equally afraid of the game. This theory also explains why more and more children become interested in the genre. Horror provides a “safe” fear that can be triumphed from the comfort of home. After consuming something in the genre, intimidating things in real life seem easier to confront.
Horror has another tool that makes people feel: the portrayal of characters who are afraid and whom we mirror. The effect is even stronger when the characters reflect us back. An example of this is children who read R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps book, in which the protagonists are also minors. And, as with any other well-crafted form of art, the gratification will prompt us to seek similar things.
The Bottom Line
If we had to summarise this article in a few words, it would be: People enjoy horror because it is fun. Maybe you crave the adventurous exploration of an uncanny story where evil creeps behind every wall. Perhaps you’re more attracted to the jump-scares created by the increased tension. It could be that you look forward to the sweet catharsis of facing a monster without actually being endangered yourself. There are many reasons to appreciate art-horror, even if it doesn’t seem rational at first sight.
Our instincts tell us to avoid danger and such is the function of fear. Without it, humans would not have survived the hazards of nature over years and years of evolution. Nowadays, we can give ourselves the luxury of devising simulations that elicit that primal survival mechanism and we exploit it for fun. So maybe you could now dive into the latest horror blockbuster and think of how your reactions are the reflection of a lifestyle we no longer have to endure. Maybe, you can subject yourself to a state of fascination over how humans can make even the most uncomfortable of states into a form of entertainment.
- Carroll, N. (1987). The Nature Of Horror. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 46(1), 51–59.
- Martin, G. N. (2019). (Why) Do You Like Scary Movies? A Review of the Empirical Research on Psychological Responses to Horror Films. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1–22. (2)
- Dickson, R. (1998). Horror: To Gratify, Not Edify. Language Arts, 76(2), 115–122.
- Gaut, B. (1993). The Paradox Of Horror. The British Journal of Aesthetics, 33(4), 333–345.
- Tamborini, R., & Stiff, J. (1987). Predictors of Horror Film Attendance and Appeal. Communication Research, 14(4), 415–436.