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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 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.

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.'"

Reviewed on October 25, 2007

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