You might think that horror movies are a delicious, trashy pleasure. But watching them has surprisingly wholesome effects
Mathias Clasen is associate professor of literature and media and director of the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University in Denmark. He has written many articles and books on horror, including Why Horror Seduces (2017) and A Very Nervous Person’s Guide to Horror Movies (2021).
Edited byChristian Jarrett
I’m a full-time horror researcher with my own lab. I read Stephen King novels at bedtime, watch slasher movies on the weekends, and play survival horror video games whenever I have a spare moment.
But it wasn’t always like that. The first time I saw a horror film at the movie theatre, I left halfway through. It was too much for 14-year-old me. There I was, in the darkness of the cinema, staring at monsters cavorting on the screen and listening to the other teenagers screaming in delight around me. Anxious excitement had turned to heart-stopping horror as those on-screen monsters unfolded their full potential for death and grisly dismemberment.
It was a loss of face from which I have never fully recovered. The burning shame of leaving early is about as vivid in my memory as the metallic terror of witnessing the gory acts of those homicidal monsters.
One particular scene is etched in my mind. Just as the main character – a sympathetic and attractive young woman – is about to kiss her charming date, his handsome face contorts and transforms into the visage of a cat-like monstrosity, with a mouth full of sharp fangs. She manages to fight him off and runs into the arms of a policeman, who helps the sobbing woman into his patrol car. Phew! But then, the cat-man-monster shows up behind the cop with a pencil in his hand. He slams it, pointy end first, into the unfortunate lawman’s ear with a squishy-crunchy sound. The cop then falls over, landing on the side of his head from which the pencil protrudes… with another squishy-crunchy sound to follow.
For all its visceral and violent unpleasantness, the experience of watching this movie – some of it, anyway – ignited a curiosity in me. Why did all the other teenagers around me seem to enjoy this grotesque flick – Sleepwalkers (1992), if you’d been wondering. Indeed, why do so many people voluntarily seek out entertainment that is designed to shock and scare them? What do they get out of it? A thrill, a jolt to the nervous system – or is there something deeper going on?
Horror movies come in various forms, which can be divided into two main subgenres: supernatural ones (think of wailing ghosts, rotting zombies or mind-shattering abominations from forbidden dimensions), and the more psychological (your masked-serial-killers and giant-reptiles varieties). Common to them all is that they aim to evoke negative emotions, such as fear, anxiety, disgust and dread. They also tend to be enormously popular. According to a survey my colleagues and I conducted a few years ago, more than half of US respondents – about 55 per cent – say they enjoy ‘scary media’, including movies such as The Exorcist (1973), books such as King’s Salem’s Lot (1975) and video games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010).
What’s more, people who say they enjoy scary media really mean it. We also asked our respondents how frightening they wanted their horror to be. It might sound like a weird thing to ask – like asking how funny they want their comedies to be – but we wanted to test an old Freudian idea that the negative emotions elicited by the genre are unfortunate byproducts; a price that audiences are willing to pay in order to watch movies that allow them to confront their own repressed desires in monstrous disguise. But that’s not what we found. About 80 per cent of our respondents said they wanted their horror entertainment to be in the moderate-to-highly frightening range. By contrast, a measly 3.9 per cent said that they prefer horror that’s not scary at all.
So, fear and the other negative emotions are central to the appeal of horror, a fact not lost on the creators of horror entertainment. Surely you’ve seen movie trailers claiming to be ‘The scariest movie of all time!’ or promising to make you sleep with the lights on for weeks afterwards. More inventively, the US filmmaker William Castle once took out life insurance on his audience. If any audience member died from fear as they watched his movie Macabre (1958), their bereaved ones would receive $1,000 from Lloyd’s of London. (Nobody did die. But the gimmick surely drew more horror hounds to the picture.)…