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.
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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.
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.