Screams and gasps. Knuckles turned white as they grip arm rests. Twitching feet, tapping the carpet. Beads of sweat trickling down necks. Eyes covered, but peek through finger gaps. The audience is stricken with terror, and some are even crying. They seem to be having a miserable time, yet the theater is packed. So, what is it about horror films that interest so many people? The newest horror film, Get Out, grossed an impressive $33.4 million on opening weekend and generated more than $100 million in just sixteen days, making it the fastest Blumhouse[1] movie to hit this benchmark (Deadline). Horror films are multi-emotion provoking, which create an overall pleasurable and intriguing experience for viewers and is why horror films are only getting more popular.

To identify why humans enjoy horror films, one must first understand how and why animals come to fear certain things. Psychological research and experiments have concluded that fear is somewhat heritable, but that most of what animals fear is learned in the early stages of life. In multiple experiments with mice, mice that displayed fearful behavior were bred together, which resulted in a population of “more fearful” mice, demonstrating that fear does have a genetic component (“Monsters on the Brain”). However, this experiment only proves that animals’ level of fear they experience is heritable and fails to explain why certain animals fear certain things. Psychologists have discovered that animals’ fears have developed from the stimulation of cognitive categories. Birds and mammals are born with malleable categories in their brains where they store and classify everything they encounter in the first six months of life. After the animal is older than six months, these categories solidify and from then on, things the animal encounters that don’t fit into a category are feared by that animal (“Basis of Horror”). The same is true for humans. In psychologist, Mary Ainsworth’s, “strange situation” experiments she observed a baby slightly less than six months old before and after its mother left the baby with another woman and exited room. The same was done with a baby slightly older than six months. The younger child had no change in behavior when its mother left the room; whereas, the older child was visibly upset and crying. The results of this experiment demonstrate that humans younger than six months old don’t fear anything, as they are absorbing everything. However, humans older than six months, whose cognitive categories are set, can identify that they are with a stranger and respond in fear (AMSA 2). Horror writers and directors purposefully violate these cognitive categories to instill fear in their audience. “Horror films often include hybrid characters – part man, part monster – because they defy the categories of taxonomy, or zombies which defy the categories of animate and inanimate objects”. This categorical jamming, or violation of humans’ categories, generate fear and cognitive confusion, creating the juxtaposition of humans simultaneously being drawn to and repelled by horror (“Basis of Horror”).

Similarly, humans’ physiological reactions to fear and their enjoyment of horror films is also contradictive. When humans experience fear, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and triggers many bodily responses, such as increased heart rate, spike in blood pressure, increased blood flow to muscles, release of adrenaline, and emptying of the bladder and bowels. These responses prepare the body to either fight or flight, as the animal is now more alert, stronger and lighter (“Basis of Horror”). The amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with emotions, is stimulated when an animal is in fear and works together with the hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores memories, which allows animals to associate fear with certain things and remember to avoid said things in the future (“Monsters on the Brain”). Experiments conducted on a woman (named “SM”) with a damaged and non-functioning amygdala – meaning she doesn’t experience fear – was placed fear-eliciting situations, such as a in haunted house or a beside a venomous snake, and observed her reactions. The subject displayed no hesitation or distress and often approached the danger, requiring scientists to pull her from harm’s way. The subject’s reaction demonstrates that there is an underlying element to horror that captivates humans and is hidden beneath the brain’s reaction of fear (“Basis of Horror”). This discovery helps to explain why humans are so intrigued by horror films.

The “SM” experiment also supports the theory that humans can have multiple conflicting emotions at once and still have a pleasurable experience.  Hedonic consumption, defined by Dr. Vassilis Dalakas, a professor of marketing at Cal State San Marcos University, is the “‘consumers’ desire to consume experiences that generate emotions and many individuals enjoy the pleasure of experiencing such emotions”. Hedonic consumption allows for people to experience multiple emotions, some positive and some negative, and still have an overall, pleasurable experience because the consumer sought out the experience. Therefore, horror films, although they elicit negative emotions, such as terror and anxiety, can still create a pleasurable experience for the viewer because the viewer wanted to experience those emotions and the viewer feels safe in the environment in which they experience fear. The movie theater, or a couch at home, is an example of safe environment where a person can experience the fear they desire without being in any real danger. Dr. Dalakas summarizes hedonic consumption by saying, “What’s interesting is that, in this case, pleasure is derived not just by positive emotions, like joy, but also by negative emotions, like sadness or fear” (Brown).

Hedonic consumption aligns with the theory that pain and pleasure aren’t mutually exclusive emotions. When defining pleasure, it is too simplistic and naïve to say that pleasure comes from only positive and happy experiences. “We are attracted to things because they’re pleasant; not all things we’re attracted to are pleasant”. Aristotle suggests that pleasure is strongly associated with perfection. Perfection is an agreement between the person and the experience, which is unique for every individual. This explains why some people enjoy horror movies and some despise them. For some, the relationship between themselves and horror movies is a “good fit” and creates a pleasure structure –  a “fit between the capacity being activated and the object that it is active in relation to”. For others, the experience and the person does not agree and creates a pain structure – a “misfit between the capacity being activated and the object that it is active in relation to”. Another example of the relationship between perfection and pleasure is drinking a warm beverage. A person who was just outside playing in the snow would find drinking a warm beverage to be a pleasurable experience; whereas, a person who was just running and sweating in 90-degree weather would find drinking a hot beverage to be a non-pleasurable experience. Since horror movies provoke multiple contradicting emotions they have complex emotional structures, which are similar to pleasure structures and pain structures, except complex structures consider a set of objects or experiences, such as the many scenes in a horror movie. The theory of strong ambivalence is “taking pleasure in an experience partly in virtue of its painful aspects”. Strong ambivalence allows people to have an overall pleasant complex experience, partially because some pain structures exist in the experience. Strong ambivalence explains why people get the most pleasure from especially scary rollercoasters or terrifying horror movies. It’s because of these moments of pain structures – the big drops and the scenes that make people scream – that make the overall complex structure pleasurable (Strohl).

Part of what makes horror films the “most perfect” way to experience is that they provide a safe environment for people to experience fear. Mature human brains are sophisticated enough to be able to distinguish between actual danger and fake danger. This allows for teenagers and adults to be scared by horror movies, but not to a point of hysteria because they’re aware that the movie they’re watching doesn’t endanger themselves. Whereas, young children cannot separate real danger from fake danger, causing them to be traumatized by horror movies and have extremely adverse reactions to them. Furthermore, the “fake danger” of horror movies creates a safe space for humans to learn. Even though horror films don’t put the audience in any real danger, there are very real and daunting threats in the real world, so people can “practice” responses through viewing horror in safe contexts (“Monsters on the Brain”). Recent research has discovered that, when watching horror movies, other parts of the brain are stimulated in conjunction with the amygdala. These include the visual cortex, the insular cortex, the thalamus, and the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex. These parts of the brain deal a lot with interpreting and processing situations and control sensory responses. The stimulation of these parts of the brain demonstrate that humans do a great deal of thinking while watching horror movies, as their brain is interpreting what they’re viewing and creating possible responses and solutions for the threats on the screen (Film Maker IQ). Horror movies do not only instill fright in their viewers, but they also elicit aspects of comedy, surprise, sympathy, curiosity, and many other emotions that create an overall enjoyable and intriguing experience.

Because horror movies evoke a variety of emotions that scare, intrigue and make people think, horror has continued to be a successful and well-liked film genre for decades. From the recent success of horror franchises, such as the six Paranormal Activity movies and The Conjuring and its sequel, and individual horror films, such as Split and Get Out, it’s apparent that horror movies continue to be a popular film genre and are raking in even bigger audiences and profits. Over the years, there have been many different cycles of horror that will thrive for a few years and then go out of vogue within a decade, such as gothic horror in the 1930s, pulp science fiction in the 1950s, psychology, sex and gore in the 1960s, shark, teen horror and slasher movies of the 1970s and 1980s, “found footage”, documentary style movies in the 1990s and 21st century, and zombie movies that are just dying out today. However, there is one subgenre of horror film that began in the 1960s and has never “cycled out” over the years: psychological horror and thriller. Psychological horror began with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960, and has continued with popular movies such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Shining (1980), The Silence of The Lambs and The Sixth Sense (1991), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Shutter Island (2010), and continues today with Get Out (2017). Psychological horror films and thrillers are consistently popular movies because they aren’t typically gory or vile – something that often deters viewers. Instead, psychological movies create a sense of uneasiness and eeriness for the audience by manipulating the viewers through the movies. Psychological horror movies and thrillers often leave the viewer confused, unsettled and thinking about the film for days after the movie has ended. Overall, horror movies will continue to be a popular and successful film genre because they stimulate the brain in multiple ways, confusing, interesting and thrilling the audience.

[1] American film and television production company known for producing low-budget horror movies

Works Cited

Asma, Stephen T. “Monsters on the Brain: An Evolutionary Epistemology of Horror.” Social Research, vol. 81, no. 4, Winder2014, pp. 941-968. EBSCOhost,             search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9j&AN=101745877&site=ehost-live.

Asma, Stephen T. “The Biological and Psychological Basis of Horror.” Skeptic, vol. 20, no. 1, Mar. 2015, pp. 22-23. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9j&AN=101745877&site=ehost-live.

Brown, Stacy. “Psychologits: Why We Like to Be Scared.” The Washington Informer. The Wasington Informer, 01 Jan. 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2017. Link

D’Alessandro, Anthony. “Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ Become The Fastest Blumhouse Title To Hit $100M.” Deadline. N.p., 11 Mar. 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2017. Link

Strohl, Matthew. “Horror and Hedonic Ambivalence.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, vol. 70, no. 2, Spring2012, pp. 203-212. EBSCOhost, doi: 10.1111/j.1540-     6245.2012.01512.x.

“The History and Psychology of Horror.” FilmmakerIQcom. N.p., n.d. Web.09 Apr. 2017. Link

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