Genre – Why Do We Watch Horror Films?
This week Tim Matthews takes a look at the psychology of the horror movie.
If you are a regular reader of this column or if you know me particularly well, then you will know how much I enjoy a good horror movie. Not everybody does however; some people find them quite disturbing and downright gross. It is something my girlfriend and I were discussing a few weeks ago. As I have already said, I love horror movies. My girlfriend is firmly in the anti-horror camp and she doesn’t understand why on earth people would want to watch them. Our little discussion stuck in my mind and became the inspiration for this week’s ‘Genre’ column. Why do some people love these kinds of films? Why do they revel in being scared out of their wits while lapping up the gore and violent imagery, and other people can’t bear to watch it and do not understand its appeal?
For some (including myself) it can be a bit of armchair thrill seeking. In the same way that extreme sports enthusiasts will throw themselves off a bridge with just a piece of elastic attached, or climb the highest peaks without any ropes. A good horror movie can give us that same rush from the sense of putting ourselves in danger. This probably works best with ‘Slasher’ movies; films like Halloween (1978), Scream (1996), and Sorority House Massacre (1986). In these films we’re usually thrown into the action with the victim, running around abandoned corridors with the masked, faceless killer hot on their heels. It’s in these films that we get the same kind of adrenaline rush that we can get from participating in extreme sports or from riding roller coasters.
This adrenaline rush is something that filmmakers have been trying to tap into since film began. One filmmaker, who clearly understood that audiences loved this kind of cinema experience and would flock to horror films for it, was William Castle. In the fifties and sixties, Castle made a string of horror movies including House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959) and Thirteen Ghosts (1960). Although in terms of quality, these films were not particularly remarkable, Castle did have an ace up his sleeve. In the cinemas, he would install gimmicks such as dummy skeletons flying down from the ceilings or electric shock buzzers installed under the seats. All of these things were designed to give the audiences an extra fright, get their pulses racing and enhance the scary experience of the events happening onscreen.
These days’ film makers are trying 3D to achieve the same effects. Directors Alexandra Aja and Patrick Lussier have both had moderate success using the technique in Piranha 3D and My Bloody Valentine 3D respectively. They’ve both used it to have audiences ducking for cover as they think that severed limbs, razor sharp blades and vicious creatures fly out of the screen towards them. If you had stood outside a screening of one of Castle’s movies or either Piranha or My Bloody Valentine, you would see the same reactions from the people coming out; they’d more than likely be exhilarated, laughing, maybe slightly breathless and in high spirits. It all comes from this roller coaster ride type of feeling in which at the end, you feel like you have survived an ordeal and the your brain releases extra endorphins and dopamine so that you get that feeling of exhilaration.
In more recent times there has been a trend for horror movies to eschew the ‘don’t look behind you’, something waiting in the shadows style scares, for in your face scenes of people being tortured to death in various and increasingly inventive, disgusting ways. It has led to a disturbing new subgenre known as ‘Torture Porn’ made popular by films such as Hostel (2005) and Martyrs (2008). These films relish showing unflinching images of extreme gore and violence that the camera seems to be trying to draw you into. Gory films aren’t a new phenomenon however; ‘Splatter’ movies have long held a place in horror fan’s hearts. Famous examples of these films include The Evil Dead (1981), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and the Hellraiser movies (1987-2005). These films were also extremely bloody and violent but presented this onscreen gore in a more fantastical, less realistic manner than the ‘Torture Porn’ films.
So what about the gore side of things? Why are people continually drawn to looking at images of blood and guts and seeing their fellow men being impaled and dismembered, where does this bloodlust come from?
Many psychologists believe that by watching these kinds of films, people find a safe outlet with which to face their own mortality; that they can understand and face up to death in more relatable terms when they see it happen to somebody who was morally questionable (in many of these films, as highlighted in Scream, teenagers who take drugs, have promiscuous sex and drink alcohol underage usually meet the most grisly ends). It could also be speculated that by watching these more extreme forms of death, our own fates become more palatable and however we meet our end cannot be so bad or painful.
One interesting theory can be found in the works of Sigmund Freud; specifically, his Death Drive theory. Freud believed that we have various aspects to our mental states; our survival instincts, commonly referred to as fight or flight, our pleasure principal, in which we seek to make our lives as pleasurable and comfortable as possible and lastly, an instinct that exists in all organic matter to revert back to an inanimate state. In the case of animals and humans that can only be achieved by dying. It could be argued that, in acting upon this death drive instinct, maybe, people use horror films to achieve that sense of moving towards returning to an inanimate state safely, without having to literally risk their life. Maybe it could be said that by watching horror films, we can get as close as possible to experiencing death without actually having to physically experience it.
I personally don’t believe that there is one right answer. Everybody is different and almost certainly enjoy horror films for different reasons. Hopefully this article goes someway to understanding the appeal of this genre but it is most likely that much more study is needed to find a definitive answer. One thing that is certain, people will continue seeking out these films for a long time to come and I for one will be at the front of the queue.