Why We Love Scary Movies
Horror films are more graphic than ever. Why do we watch, and what do scary movies do to us?
Morbid Fascination continued...
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
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
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
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
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.'"