Why We Love Scary Movies

Horror films are more graphic than ever. Why do we watch, and what do scary movies do to us?

From the WebMD Archives

Halloween is nigh, and along with the parade of adorable elves and fairies knocking on your door come some more disturbing phenomena: scary haunted houses, wild parties and, perhaps most jarringly, a new onslaught of ghastly horror films. This year the biggest new release will be Saw IV, the fourth installment of a tale of a psycho who delights in putting his victims through ever more elaborate and deadly traps.

Scary movies are nothing new, but films like those in the Saw and Hostel series have offered something different: They focus less on the suspense of the chase and more on the suffering of the victim, leading some to dub them "torture porn." They feature levels of gore and violence once reserved for cult films. And despite the extreme gore, they're attracting big crowds at your local megaplex -- and may already be loaded into your teenager's DVD player.

If you're not a horror movie fan, you may be puzzled about why people put themselves through the ordeal of watching such movies. Many behavioral researchers share your puzzlement, giving rise to a term: the "horror paradox."

"No doubt, there's something really powerful that brings people to watch these things, because it's not logical," Joanne Cantor, PhD, director of the Center for Communication Research at University of Wisconsin, Madison, tells WebMD. "Most people like to experience pleasant emotions."

Defenders of these movies may say they're just harmless entertainment. But if their attraction is powerful, Cantor says, so is their impact. These impacts are felt by adults as well as children, by the well-adjusted as well as the disturbed. They may linger well after the house lights go up -- sometimes for years. And they may be anything but pleasurable.

(Do you like scary movies? What are your favorites? Join the talk on the Health Café message board.)

Scary Movies: The Fear Is Real

So is the fear you feel when you watch someone being chased by an axe-wielding murderer any different from the fear you might feel if you were actually being chased by an axe-wielding murderer?

The answer is no, at least not from where Glenn Sparks sits. Sparks, a professor of communication at Purdue University, studies the effects of horror films on viewers' physiology. When people watch horrific images, their heartbeat increases as much as 15 beats per minute, Sparks tells WebMD. Their palms sweat, their skin temperature drops several degrees, their muscles tense, and their blood pressure spikes.

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"The brain hasn't really adapted to the new technology [of movies]," Sparks explains. "We can tell ourselves the images on the screen are not real, but emotionally our brain reacts as if they are ... our 'old brain' still governs our reactions."

When Sparks studied the physical effects of violent movies on young men, he noticed a strange pattern: The more fear they felt, the more they claimed to enjoy the movie. Why? Sparks believes scary movies may be one of the last vestiges of the tribal rite of passage.

"There's a motivation males have in our culture to master threatening situations," Sparks says. "It goes back to the initiation rites of our tribal ancestors, where the entrance to manhood was associated with hardship. We've lost that in modern society, and we may have found ways to replace it in our entertainment preferences."

In this context, Sparks says, the gorier the movie, the more justified the young man feels in boasting that he endured it. Other examples of modern tribal rites include roller coasters and even frat-house hazing.

Morbid Fascination

There are other theories to explain the appeal of scary movies. James B. Weaver III, PhD, says many young people may be attracted to them merely because adults frown on them. For adults, morbid curiosity may be at play -- the same kind that causes us to stare at crashes on the highway, suggests Cantor. Humans may have an innate need to stay aware of dangers in our environment, especially the kind that could do us bodily harm, she says.

Yet another theory suggests that people may seek out violent entertainment as a way of coping with actual fears or violence. Sparks points to a study that showed that shortly after the murder of a college student in a community, interest in a movie showing a cold-blooded murder increased, both among women in the student's dormitory and in the community at large.

One popular explanation for the appeal of scary movies, expressed by the likes of horror novelist Stephen King, is that they act as a sort of safety valve for our cruel or aggressive impulses. The implication of this idea, which academics dub "symbolic catharsis," is that watching violence forestalls the need to act it out.

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Unfortunately, media researchers say the effect may be closer to the opposite. Consuming violent media is more likely to make people feel more hostile, to view the world that way, and to be haunted by violent ideas and images.

In an experiment, Weaver showed gratuitously violent films (with stars like Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal) to college students for several nights in a row. The next day, while they were performing a simple test, a research assistant treated them rudely. The students who had watched the violent films suggested a harsher punishment for the rude assistant than students who had watched nonviolent films. "Watching these films actually made people more callous and more punitive," says Weaver, a researcher at Emory University's department of behavioral sciences and health education. "You can actually prime the idea that aggression or violence is the way to resolve conflict."

Lingering Effects

Just because people seek out scary movies doesn't mean their effects are benign, researchers say. In fact, Cantor suggests keeping children away from these films, and adds that adults have plenty of reasons to say away, as well.

In surveys of her students, Cantor found that nearly 60% reported that something they had watched before age 14 had caused disturbances in their sleep or waking life. Cantor has collected hundreds of essays by students who became afraid of water or clowns, who had obsessive thoughts of horrible images, or who became disturbed even at the mention of movies such as E.T. or Nightmare on Elm Street. More than a quarter of the students said they were still fearful.

Cantor suspects that the brain may store memories of these films in the amygdala, which plays an important role in generating emotions. She says these film memories may produce similar reactions to those produced by actual trauma -- and may be just as hard to erase.

Cantor views horror films as unhealthy because of the physical stress they create in viewers and the "negative trace" they can leave, even on adults. But the effects are especially strong on children. In her book, "Mommy , I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them, Cantor describes what frightens children at different ages and how to help them cope if they happen to see something disturbing.

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The Torture Trap

Why has "torture porn" caught on in recent years? Experts who spoke to WebMD offered a number of possible explanations. With the controversy over torture that has followed in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, viewers may wonder "what [torture] would be like," Sparks says.

Or the reason may lie with the filmmakers, who are entranced by the ability of digital special effects to make gore look more realistic, suggests Weaver. Alternately, they may be seeking to up the ante set by graphic television shows such as CSI.

As people become more desensitized to violence in the media, Sparks and other experts worry that we may also be becoming more desensitized to violence in real life. And Cantor worries that films with explicit gore may be more likely to be traumatizing.

With some hard-core horror movies having performed poorly in the box office this year, Sparks hopes that the torture porn trend is on its way out. In surveys he has done, Sparks has found that most people -- even adolescent males -- don't actively seek out violence in films.

"The further films go today, the more likely it will be that people will decide that the costs outweigh the benefits. Then they'll say, 'I don't want to see that anymore.'"

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 25, 2007

Sources

SOURCES: Joanne Cantor, PhD, director, Center for Communication Research, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Glenn Sparks, PhD, professor of communication, Purdue University, Lafayette, Ind. James B. Weaver III, PhD, department of behavioral sciences and health education, Emory University, Atlanta. Web site of Joanne Cantor: "Long-term Memories of Frightening Media Often Include Lingering Trauma Symptoms." Zillman, D. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1999; vol 29: no.1. Boyanowsky, E. Communication Research, January 1974. Zillman, D. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1986; vol 51, no. 3.

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