The Psychology of Scary Movies

We talked to a horror movie director, a critic, and a sociologist to determine what draws us to horror movies - and keeps drawing us.

Scott Weinberg caught the horror bug when he was 12 years old. It came to him during a television viewing of Friday the 13th Part 2, “the first movie that scared the living hell out of me” – and it haunted him for the rest of the night. “I was staying at an aunt’s house,” he recalls, “We watched Friday 2 on HBO, and I could not sleep all night. I was terrified. Y’know, take sleeping over at a relative’s house when you don’t know it all that well, and then combine that with discovering your first Friday the 13th movie the same night…” He was a goner, hooked for life.

Weinberg has spent much of his career as a film critic writing about horror movies (many of those reviews are collected in his book Modern Horrors), and he recently moved from fan to creator, co-producing Steven DeGenarro’s Found Footage 3D. That kind of dedication to the genre is not uncommon among its fans, which prompts a question: why do so many people not only seek out the potentially upsetting experience of being scared at the movies, but continue to chase the high of that first big scare? Why would you continue to subject yourself to that kind of panic and fear?

When you start young, as Weinberg did, there are a number of possibilities. But one of the most common reasons young people watch scary movies is simple: they’re not supposed to. “There’s a sense of illicitness to horror that is very seductive,” writes IGN’s Lucy O’Brien, “because from a very early age we are taught that watching horror movies, like porn and cigarettes and pinching the underside of your little brother’s arm to make him squeal, is wrong. Part of the appeal of horror comes down to a basic thrill of seeking out that which we’re not meant to see; it’s a feeling that stays well into adulthood, buried deeply, no matter how world-weary one may grow.”

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Margie Kerr agrees. “Horror movies do allow us to tap into the taboo,” she explains, “and to engage with things that are a little bit more risqué, and I think that as we grow up we want to investigate this. It’s human nature to investigate and to be curious, and to go into the places we’re told that we shouldn’t.”

A sociologist specializing in fear (and author of the book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear), Kerr has spent a lot of time considering these questions — what scares us, what draws us to scary things, and what keeps us coming back to them. Unsurprisingly, much of the motivation is biological. The feeling of fear and dread, she says, “signals our threat response system — what people generally call ‘fight or flight.’ The signal goes out that something could potentially be threatening or scary, and our bodies start to release different chemicals that increase our efficiency at either running or fighting; basically, we go into full survival mode.”

In that mode, our body releases what Kerr calls “go hormones”: adrenaline, endorphins, dopamines, serotonin, oxytocin, the works. Our metabolism and heart rate increases, and “we’re basically turning into the Incredible Hulk,” Kerr says, “or our own version of it. So that can, in the right circumstance, feel really good, because that physiological response has a lot in common with other ‘high arousal states,’ like when we’re really excited, when we’re laughing, when we’re happy, when we’re full of joy and surprise. The physical picture looks very similar.” But most surprisingly, according to Thomas Straube’s 2009 study of neural reactions to scary movies, the brain tends to function similarly when we’re watching those situations to how it does when we’re actually experiencing them. That study’s results “support models predicting cerebral hypoactivation in high sensation seekers during neutral stimulation, which may be compensated by more intense sensations such as watching scary movies.”

The notion of “high sensation seekers” is key to understanding the draw of horror cinema. Of the “go hormones” triggered by scary experiences, dopamine is one of the more rewarding — and one that risk-takers are more inclined to keep chasing. Scare-seekers, Kerr explains, tend to fit within the thrill- and sensation-seeker categories, or at least those who are open to new experiences. “So people who are willing to try new things, who like to find new restaurants, who are more spontaneous, who are more comfortable with uncertainty, tend to enjoy these types of activities more.”

Of course, these are all broad classifications and generalizations — different people watch horror films differently, and don’t even watch the same films the same way as they get older. A great horror film, Weinberg says, is “like a diamond: you turn it to another angle, you see something different.” A 1995 report by Dr. Deirdre Johnson (cited by Psychology Today) pinpointed four different viewing motivations for horror movies, with varying degrees of identification and empathy for either killers or victims. That makes sense to Weinberg: “You will see something different in Halloween if you watch it at age 15, and then at age 30. As a kid, you watch Halloween and you’re one of those babysitters or you’re one of those kids, and you just wanna stay away from the killer. Now, when you watch it as a grown-up, you might look at it like one of those kids’ parents, and you have a completely different perspective on the horror.”

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And that evolution of empathy — from victim to family, or even from killer to victim — can be seen as a net positive. “The way that we understand each other, the way that we connect to each other, is through re-creation of those [people’s] feelings in ourselves,” Kerr says. “So for example, when you look at the brain of someone who is screaming, it looks very similar to someone who is just watching someone scream, or somebody who is thinking about somebody screaming. So we really do understand each other by recreating their experience in ourselves — and that’s key to humanity, to empathy, to connection and compassion. Horror movies do allow us to connect with these different types of characters, and in doing so, think about who we are.”

Yet all of these responses, and all of these appeals, are to some degree subconscious – which is quite possibly over-thinking the appeal of a genre whose fans have almost always been, to some extent, in on the gag. Sheldon Wilson has been making horror movies for more than a dozen years now, from 2004’s Shallow Ground to the new supernatural haunted house chiller The Unspoken (out Friday in limited release and on demand). “The great thing about horror is, everyone who makes these movies, we’re such fans of the genre,” he says. “We all grew up on these movies, and you embrace those things that you love the most, and hopefully the people who see those films, see that and embrace that as well. But going in, you definitely are aware that the people watching your movies are incredibly educated in the horror genre. So how do you use that to your advantage?”

In modern horror movies – even those that aren’t explicitly trafficking in Scream-style meta-text – that awareness amounts to a dialogue between filmmaker and audience, a sense of performance and assumption. The well-versed horror fan knows the tricks of the trade. The filmmaker knows the fan knows. The fan knows the filmmaker knows, and around and around. The result is that audience and filmmaker end up doing what Kerr calls “the dance of the expectation, because fundamentally, our fear is an error in our prediction system. [It’s a disparity between] our ability to know what we are expecting to happen, and what actually happens. And when those things don’t match up, we get scared.”

So the acknowledgment of the tropes, and the question of how (or if) those expectations will be met, becomes part of the show — another element of suspense.

“The relationship between a horror filmmaker and a horror junkie is similar to a magician and his audience,” Weinberg says. He explains the inner monologue that plays out within his brain while watching a new horror movie: “They’re about to pull some tricks on me, and I’m playing along. I know the monster doesn’t exist, but I’m playing along. And for a real horror fan, the magician has to really screw up bad for us to walk away unhappy. We are pretty forgiving and loyal, and even if the magician’s trick isn’t perfect, if it’s decent, we’ll give ’em a round of applause anyway.”

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Kerr sees a “challenge between creators and consumers, of balancing and violating expectations,” and Wilson agrees. “Audiences are so smart,” he says, “they sense when something’s coming… I have a hard time watching horror movies, because I feel the set-up. Oh, they’re going to this shot, the music is doing that, and now I know what’s coming. So I have a lot of respect for films where it catches me off-guard.”

And so it works both ways – fans like knowing where a filmmaker is going, but they also like when they’re wrong. And even when they’re not, it’s not a big deal. “A lot of bad horror movies are still fun, [whereas] bad comedies — not to generalize too much — are not,” Weinberg says. “Bad drama? Definitely not. But bad horror, or even mediocre horror, can still turn out to be fairly entertaining. Why? What scares us is more universal than what touches us emotionally or makes us laugh,” he surmises. “Comedy or drama don’t always translate across the board, [but] I think a lot of times horror does.”

The reasons for this often extend beyond the monsters-and-killer framework. Much has been written about the notion that Weinberg dubs “horror film as social catharsis” — that the conventions of genre allow filmmakers to smuggle in social issues like McCarthyism (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Vietnam (Night of the Living Dead), Watergate (Jaws), and conspicuous consumption (Dawn of the Dead) without explicitly discussing them. “The funny thing is, we only seem to notice that in hindsight,” Weinberg notes. In the moment, we may merely respond to the way that horror movies package our anxieties into the form of destructible monsters, and then lets us watch as they’re decimated.

“Studies have shown, during times of war or country-wide stress, that’s when horror really thrives, because people are looking for an outlet,” Wilson says. “And that gives them the outlet. I’m not sure if it’s the going-and-being-scared aspect of it, or if it’s the sense of feeling safe afterwards, which is the comforting aspect of that.”

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Kerr believes it’s the latter. “The [idea] that has science behind it is… these issues of preserved agency,” she explains. “When we engage with the material on our own terms, it does become more manageable, it feels more in our control, it feels like we can wrap our head around it. And when it’s fake, there is that protective frame that we’re viewing it through, so we’re a bit more distanced from it.”

One of the key studies here was conducted in 1994, when a trio of researchers (Jonathan Haidt, Clark McCauley, and Paul Rozin) studied “Individual Differences in Sensitivity to Disgust”. Four years later, McCauley wrote about an experiment wherein college students were shown documentary clips of extreme violence and gore. Most of the subjects were unable to watch the clips in their entirety — but they had no such qualms with fictional films dramatizing similar scenes. Again, there is an awareness here, a psychological distance allowed by the fictional framework, which gives viewers a sense of control. “The real thing, we know it’s there,” Kerr says. “We know we’re gonna die, we know these things happen, so we can’t ignore it — but we need a less real confrontation with such scary things.”

And that need to control “scary things” extends well beyond our own mortality. “The most horrible things in the world, the real cancers of our society, have to be interrogated,” Warren Ellis wrote in 2013. “Fiction is how we both study and de-fang our monsters. To lock violent fiction away, or to close our eyes to it, is to give our monsters and our fears undeserved power and richer hunting grounds.” This is not a new idea; in his book Danse Macabre, published clear back in 1981, Stephen King wrote that genre movies “often serve as an extraordinarily accurate barometer of those things which trouble the night-thoughts of a whole society,” and noted, “we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”

As we near the end of an election cycle that has so vividly exposed the darkest underbelly of our so-called humanity, maybe we need horror films now more than ever. “I think we might end up, in the next year and a half or so, seeing more angry, indie horror movies than we did before,” Weinberg predicts. “Things like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Man Bites Dog, dark indictments of society. I think there are going to be some screenwriters out there who are so stricken and so disgusted by the level of political discourse that it’s hard not to get cynical and angry.” And we’ll settle in to our seats, to feel fear and dread, to anticipate and react, to long for survival and victory, all over again.