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The psychology of the scare: Why people are drawn to horror films

Posted October 31

Gabriel Bateman as Martin in "Lights Out." (Deseret Photo)

Amid a crowded summer at the box office this year, the movie “Lights Out” (PG-13) was one of several horror films to break out, as it used the marketing slogan, “You were right to be afraid of the dark,” essentially daring audiences to see if they could handle it. Audiences responded by turning out in droves as the movie earned a reported $148 million worldwide on a $4.9 million production budget, according to boxofficemojo.com

The scare tactic worked. The movie, which is about a demon who only shows up when a person turns off the lights, was well-received by audiences and critics alike, scoring a 77 percent and a "certified fresh" rating on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes as well as a “B” CinemaScore from opening-day audiences.

“Lights Out” wasn’t the only horror film to perform well this summer. “The Conjuring 2” (R), “The Shallows” (PG-13) and “Don’t Breathe” (R) also performed similarly. This past weekend, the Halloween-themed horror film “Ouija: Origin of Evil” (PG-13) continued this successful trend by opening to $14.1 million, surpassing its production budget of $9 million in just one weekend, according to boxofficemojo.com.

Reaction to horror

Why is it that people are drawn to these horror films that are clearly designed to scare them?

Glenn Sparks, a professor at Purdue University whose main research emphasis is the emotional reaction people have to media messages, has spent a lot of time researching the reaction that both children and adults have to frightening media. In an interview with the Deseret News, he emphasized that not everyone enjoys this type of media.

Horror films, according to Sparks, provide people with a physiological arousal, which includes an increase in heart rate, systolic blood pressure, respiration rates and muscle tension. This reaction creates a phenomenon where the emotion that is felt immediately after the film is over is intensified, causing lingering effects that can be either positive or negative, he said.

“Research shows that these films can be serious business in terms of the emotional reaction people have," Sparks said. "We have what we call the lingering emotional reaction. These fear reactions can be so disturbing in some cases that they really linger on for a while and continue to upset people long after the film is over. The more realistic the film is and the more the scenes and the characters in the film seem to resemble a person’s own reality, the more intense those reactions can be.”

Sparks pointed to "The Exorcist” (1973, R), where he said there were documented cases of people reacting so negatively to the film that they had to be hospitalized.

A little bit of anxiety is healthy, according to Mikle South, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University who researches how anxiety develops. If a person sees a rattlesnake on their path or if a bear is chasing them, the anxiety that develops can help save that person's life, South said. However, too much anxiety can be unhealthy as it begins to eat away at the brain and memory, causing people to forget things, lose things or make poor decisions.

“Anxiety comes about, it seems, when either we’re too much afraid of something — so we turn little things into big things, activating our fight-flight system unnecessarily — and/or when we’re afraid of things for too long, so that we don’t calm down after the danger is past, so that leaves us worrying too much,” South said.

Fear and safety

Film director Alfred Hitchcock said, “Fear, you see, is a feeling that people like to feel when they are certain of being in safety,” pointed out Dennis Perry, an English professor at BYU who wrote a book comparing the works of Hitchcock and Edgar Allan Poe titled “Hitchcock and Poe: The Legacy of Delight and Terror.”

While fear is not an inherently enjoyable emotion, Perry said the difference is like being in a runaway train verses riding a roller coaster, noting there is a combination of fear and delight with the latter.

“If you are on a real runaway train, it wouldn’t be fun at all because you’d be afraid of dying," Perry said. "But a roller coaster is fun because you know you are not going to die, but it gives you the illusion of being on a runaway train and in that process.”

Sparks said that there are some people who have sensation-seeking personalities who will enjoy activities such as skydiving or riding roller coasters that will also be attracted to horror films for similar reasons. It’s not the fear that people are enjoying, but rather the adrenaline rush that comes with these activities, he said.

Those who frequently expose themselves to horror films also experience an emotional desensitization, according to Sparks, that causes the negative emotions to diminish in their intensity, thus causing the positive emotions felt during the film to linger on instead of the negative emotions.

Perry pointed to a scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960, R) where the main character, Lila Crane, is searching Norman Bates’ house for evidence after the disappearance of her sister. Lila makes the decision to go down to the basement. This gives the audience a rush of adrenaline because, while Lila is oblivious to what is about to happen, the audience watched Norman in a previous scene walk down to the basement and knows danger is coming.

In “Lights Out,” audiences experience an adrenaline rush each time the demon comes closer to the protagonist when the protagonist keeps turning the lights on and off.

Good vs. evil

Religious themes are present in many horror films even if they are sometimes presented in unconventional or despairing ways, said Dean Duncan, a film professor at BYU who has taught a media genres class that goes over the history of the horror genre.

“I think a lot of people, probably everyone, is concerned about mortality and death and the evil that seems to reside within us or that we see around us,” Duncan said. “Horror is interested in religious questions and takes them very seriously, which isn’t always the case in the culture these days. I don’t know if we always like the conclusion. It may be despairing and certainly unconventional, but there’s a religious component.”

The horror movie “The Conjuring” (2013, R) has strong religious themes. While much of the movie is about paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren investigating a haunting, the overall theme of the movie is of choosing God over the devil.

Before the credits roll, a quote from Ed Warren is shown: “Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal, and they exist today. The fairy tale is true. The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.”

Duncan pointed to Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein,” which has been adapted numerous times to film, as a horror story with religious themes. Duncan said that Shelley, despite not being conventionally religious herself, discusses themes such as origin and destination in “Frankenstein,” which reflect on certain tragedies Shelley went through in her personal life.

Reflecting societal issues

Horror films can provide a way to deal with society’s fears, said John Hess, a filmmaker and co-founder of filmmakerIQ.com, a website that offers a series of free online film lessons, including one about the psychology of horror movies.

“Horror often speaks to basic societal issues that we deal with,” Hess told the Deseret News.

The major zombie push recently could be a reaction to a society that was disconnected with itself, Hess suggested.

Many horror films deal with societal issues or other themes on top of simply just being scary movies, including “The Babadook” (2014, not rated), which deals with depression and the loss of a loved one; “Mama” (2013, PG-13), which deals with issues relating to motherhood, and “Nosferatu” (1922, not rated), which is a German horror film about a culture that has no men left.

Sparks said that research has been done that shows that if there’s been a series of murders in a community, people are drawn to films that deal with the theme of criminals being overcome by law enforcement.

“Seeing law enforcement overcome a violent threat might actually be comforting to people and give them the sense that their fears can be handled if they actually had to confront that themselves,” Sparks said.

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