Why Do We Like Horror?

It’s taken nearly 2,500 years of study to figure out and we’re still not quite sure.

Not everyone likes horror movies. Not everyone will call kicking back with a big tub of popcorn and two or three SAW films a good time. While this may make hanging out with your horror-averse friends seem kind of, well … boring, you should take note that it’s not their fault (or yours). According to a 2004 paper published in the Journal of Media Psychology entitled, “Understanding the Popular Appeal of Horror Cinema” by Dr. Glenn Walters; your brains are simply wired differently.

Eight explanations of horror

Before boiling the content of his paper down to three basic concepts, Dr. Walters investigates eight of the established psychological models that have sought to answer this question.

Psychoanalytical
The dude does not abide.
A digitally de-aged Jeff Bridges. The Uncanny Valley in action.

Freud and Jung both had adorably vague theories on this side of human psychology. Freud’s thought being that horror was a manifestation of the “uncanny”; something that had been suppressed by the ego but was of familiarity to the individual causing a rift in conscious understanding. This is where we get the term “Uncanny Valley” to describe things that are simultaneously too close to and too far removed from real as to be discomforting. It’s a common problem in digital art.

Jung on the other hand contended that many Analytical concepts (anima/animus, shadow, and mother archetypes) were represented in works of horror fiction and that these works were simply a way to express those archetypes. However, psychoanalytical explanation of enjoying horror works is at best about as accurate as a horoscope and at worst about as clear as a concrete window. The lack of precision made it nearly impossible to study empirically.

Catharsis

One of the earliest theories to explain our enjoyment of horror came from Aristotle. Everyone’s favorite Greek philosopher felt that to witness dramatic portrayals of certain situations in a safe environment did something to release the negative emotions and desires related to those acts. This theory applies to all types of dramatization; action, adventure, suspense, and even horror. Watching something acted out was thought, and still is in some circles, to purge the thoughts from your head. In fact, though the correlation isn’t exactly understood, it’s been known since the 1970s that people who expose themselves to more horror or fear related content experience lower levels of fear and anxiety in nearly all aspects of their lives.

Excitation Transfer
Clearly, not everyone enjoys the ride.
A whole different type of emotional roller coaster.

The theory of excitation transfer is a variant of catharsis. First introduced in 1978, excitation transfer translates essentially to people relieving themselves of boredom. Applicable to most of the “exciting” genres, this form of catharsis suggests that people enjoy excitement, murder, and mayhem to be played out to trigger responses in themselves like empathy, an adrenaline rush, or to engage the critical thinking process that goes frequently unused in modern society. This is backed up somewhat by two smallish cohort studies conducted in 1998 showing that distress signals, quite high during the first half of a horror movie, tend to tumble during the second half and delight responses tended to climb during the second half, peaking just before the end of the film. While most pronounced in young (age 18-30) men, for everyone who had favorable responses to horror stimuli the pattern was the same.

Curiosity/Fascination

Carroll’s 1990 curiosity theory is one of the laziest and least researched theories despite still having a considerable amount of clout attributed to it today 27 years later. The basis of the curiosity theory is that we place interest in things which are outside our normal lives. While on the surface this seems like another variant of the catharsis theory, the curiosity theory actually draws correlation between the Machiavellianism scale (a scale of acceptance for things that violate socio-normative constructs) and an interest in works of horror. In short, this is the “some people are just creepy” theory. In attempting to replicate the results of Carroll’s inspiring study (Tamborini, Stiff, and Zillmann, 1987) another researcher (Weaver, 2000) found that the obverse was true and that good, wholesome people enjoyed watching horror movies because they enjoyed watching the archetypes that violate social norms be punished for their transgressions. This paragraph is 147 words (not counting this sentence) to describe an effect that the German language can condense to one word: schadenfreude.

Sensation Seeking
And how I feel after reading about it
How everyone felt at the end of Zuckerman’s study

In brief, the theory of sensation seeking behavior as motivating people to watch horror movies or participate in other thrilling activities (bungee jumping, sky diving, roller coasters, haunted houses, etc) is simply that these people are adrenaline junkies and drama queens. A series of studies conducted in the 1980s and mid-1990s were conducted with this hypothesis. The biggest problem in the largest of these studies was stated by its principal author, Zuckerman warning against “interpreting a preference in terms of a single trait or any disposition at all [because] there are many social facilitating factors that bring young people into these films”. Additionally, this was a self-reporting study that focused on a pre-determined scale, which has been shown (by Zuckerman himself in a later study) to cause people to under or over-report by a not inconsiderable amount influenced by unknown factors.

Dispositional Alignment

The dispositional alignment theory is the inverse of the curiosity theory to an extent. It is less investigatory in to reasoning and geared more toward what people will react positively to in a work of horror fiction and what people will react negatively toward. This theory is most expansively covered by a study from 1993 by Zillmann and Paulus. It uses scenarios where those acted upon in the horror piece are judged as either “guilty” or “innocent” by the participants and their reactions gauged based on terms of “victory”, “justice”, “injustice” and other possible outcomes.

Gender Role Socialization