Oct 28, 2011
Movie monsters provide food for our imagination’s nourishment. We consciously and deliberately outgrow the fears of childhood as we acquire knowledge and strengthen the ability to temper runaway fears with rational self-talk and fulfill the adult expectations of our peers. We relinquish many of our superstitions with more science-based explanations provided by our culture—some cultures and subcultures more than others. There is a cost, however: Life and our world of imagination is diminished and tamed into blandness. Life in technicolor has faded to life in black and white.
But the fears of childhood and of monsters and the supernatural are never truly banished from our minds as we become adults; they linger like archetypes in our subconscious. Movies and movie monsters allow us to revisit those fears, from a safe remove. And if it all gets too much, too real, too close, we can just close our eyes, stop up our ears, and mutter to ourselves “na, na, na, na, na.” If that doesn’t work, we can grab a hold of our date, even slump in our seat, or just get up and get some popcorn or walk out of the theater.
Interestingly, none of these escape options are usually available in nightmares or nightmarish lucid dreaming, which are infinitely more terrifying and disturbing than horror movies and have more lingering afterimages. The latter are often more realistic, harder to escape, and offer no cues as to their make-believe or unreality that movies do, such as soundtracks, special effects, or being in a movie theater with other people.
Movie monsters also provide us with the opportunity to see and learn strategies of coping with real-life monsters should we run into them, despite all probabilities to the contrary, sort of covert rehearsal for … who knows.
The major factors in the appeal of horror movies are: lifestyle, age, gender, personality, heredity, and physiology.
• Lifestyle factors:
One of the major reasons we go to scary movies is to be scared. And it’s also a safe scare so that we know that, in an hour or two hours, we’re going to walk out whole. We’re not going to have any holes in our head, and our hearts will still be in our bodies.
If we have a relatively calm, uneventful lifestyle, we seek out something that’s going to be exciting for us because our nervous system requires periodic revving, just like a good muscular engine. But there are people who have a tremendous need for stimulation and excitement. They need to feel something: need for speed mentioned in Top Gun. Life lived on the edge.
• Personality factors:
People differ in threat-related coping styles: repressors vs. sensitizers, for example. Some like to approach or confront, others prefer to avoid, or deny. The former are more positively excited by scary movies than are the latter.
People differ in their characteristic degree of reactivity (e.g., dull, mild, or intense) or thresholds of discomfort to scary or startling stimulation that is real, imagined, or fictionally presented, as in horror movies. These differences may be based on heredity, learning, aging, adaptation to prevailing levels of fear and excitement, or combinations of these influences. Thrill-seekers, for example, include: war correspondents, war photographers, performers, mercenaries, people who like to put themselves in harm’s way for the excitement of, say, confronting ones limits, testing one’s mettle, meeting a challenge.
I think that a the pivotal issue here may be that we go to horror movies (and ride roller coasters), not so much because we like to be afraid, but because we occasionally enjoy getting really excited, having extraordinarily intense or novel experiences. Horror movies are one of the better ways to embrace and sample such experiences.
Research indicates that the more negative affect a person reports experiencing during horror films, the more likely they are to say that they enjoy the genre. Studies suggest that the pleasure of scary movies comes from the relief that follows the heightened fear. But that has its limits in terms of tolerance. Generally, it should not get too far beyond our expectations. Films like The Blair Witch Project exceeded such expectations by wide margins and, according to news reports, numerous audience members threw up.
• Age factors:
Young people often need intense stimulation: sounds, tastes, touch. They’re sensory risk-takers, thrill-seekers. They like horror films far more than older people. Older people often have stimulation fatigue and vulnerabilities to many things dangerous that they more easily dismissed or saw as a challenge when they were younger and more physically fit. Violence scares them. Life-threats scare them. Life’s horrors scare them or they don’t find them entertaining any more—or interesting.
My research showed that older people prefer haunted, existentially pained monsters (e.g., Frankenstein, Mummy, the Wolfman, King Kong, Dracula) to mindless killing monsters like Freddy Krueger, Leatherface, Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, Zombies.
• Gender factors (not sex factors) and gender roles:
Going to the movie theater is also a factor, and scary movies are usually better when you’re in the company of other people. That’s why horror movies are date movies. Scary movies and monsters are just the ticket for girls to scream and hold on to a date for dear life and for the date (male or female) to be there to reassure, protect, defend, and, if need be, destroy the monster. Both parties are enacting gender roles prescribed by a culture. As cultures change, so will gender coping strategies in scary movies.
My students did several small samples on how the sexes behave in theaters while watching horror movies with the same or opposite sex. Males show more bravery and females more fear than they do when watching with the same sex. This is classic exaggerated and stereotyped gender role playing. It can also be viewed as a chance to enact tribal rituals and rites.
Stuart Fischoff is an emeritus professor of media psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, the senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology, and the author of The Media Zone blog for Psychology Today.