28 Oct 2018 AT 11:04 AM

The Fear: Why we’re eternally enticed by horror movies

For some of us, the thirst for a twisted scary movie isn’t confined to Halloween. But why do we get such joy from watching people on screen suffer? ShortList investigates…
28 Oct 2018 AT 11:04 AM
The Fear: Why we’re eternally enticed by horror movies

The last time I went to the cinema to watch a horror movie, it was 2005. I was a time-rich teenager and had rallied together a group of likewise friends to watch slasher film House Of Wax, a remake (of sorts) of the 1953 hit.

The former was only more peak-noughties in cast than it was aesthetics, with then rom-com king Chad Michael Murray and (bizarrely) reality TV royalty Paris Hilton as victims. During all the bloody-thirsty, jump-scare horror tropes, I spent most of the 113 minutes watching through my fingers while feeling my stomach churn, wondering if I’d missed a trick.

Why do sane, sensible people offer up a slither of their salaries to jump out of their seats in at best, surprise, and at worst, terror and disgust?

But in my confused hate of horror, I am certainly the minority. As author of Why Horror Seduces and Associate Professor at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, Mathias Clasen puts it “Horror has been a mainstay of Hollywood for as long as Hollywood has existed,” and his recent research suggests more than half of people consider themselves fans of ‘horror media.’ And right now, the industry is booming.

Take June 2018 box office hit Hereditary. The haunted-house type thriller overshot expectations over its opening weekend in the US with 1.4m people in attendance. Or more recently Halloween – the 40 years later follow up to the 1978 classic, which broke records upon release this autumn, pulling in $78 million (AED287 million) on the opening weekend, affirming how our lust for a slasher film thrill spans generations. These on-screen triumphs follow what’s gone down as the biggest box-office year in horror history.

Stand out films like Stephen King’s It: Chapter One that broke viewing records every day during its first week in theatres or harrowing hit Get Out, which became the highest grossing original debut by a director (Jordan Peele) ever. As spine-chilling as they were, we watched (endured?) them willingly, urging our friends to do so too.  So why are we so pulled in by the paradox of enjoying the sensation of being scared?

The Science
There is something very primal about the state of feeling scared, and some psychologists even cite fear as the oldest emotion. As Mathias puts it “The fear system is deeply embedded in some very primitive, ancient structures in our nervous system.” When our brain alerts us to a potential threat, even if we know it’s unlikely to crawl out from the screen, The Ring style, a chemical reaction takes place within the body. You know, when your heart races, your stomach sinks and your hands get all sweaty? Yeah, that. The argument to actively seeking out that reaction is that, well, humans kind of like the thrill of that fight or flight response kicking in.

Take that moment in last year’s It. You know, when Pennywise the Dancing Clown lures innocent kid Georgie closer to him only to... well, we don’t want to give anything away. Or perhaps the most iconic moment in horror movie history the scene in Psycho when killer Norman Bates pulls back the shower curtain on Marion Crane, knife in hand, eager for blood. Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear, and author of Scream: Chilling Adventures Into the Science of Fear explains that in reaction to those jump-out-of-our-skin moments.

“Our arousal system is activated, triggering a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones like endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline that influence our brains and our bodies.” It’s these heightened moments followed by a rush of hormones that keep fans of the genre handing over their cash at the cinemas. After all, humans are notorious for enjoying a build-up of tension followed by a release. But what psychologists and scientists have credited our fixation with fear to lies more in how we actually feel after all the highs and lows.

Take the classic 1973 ‘Love Bridge’ study by social psychologists Dutton and Avron. It demonstrated that men were more inclined to call an attractive woman who gave him her number after the adrenaline of a dangerous experience – such as walking across a rickety, wobbly bridge (we’re interested to see what weird and wonderful dating advice this lead to in the mid-70s). And horror films are a much more attainable and entertaining way to mimic that same sensation. Margee notes that after the experience of something fearful, emotions are heightened, and the shared participation can even cement social bonds (in a similar way to actual real-life horror experiences) which is exactly why a scary movie is a cliché date option.

But the lure towards voluntary fear has always been our ability to have control over the emotion - taking something so primal into our own will is part of the drive. Margee explains: “It’s up to us to interpret this response as enjoyable and not actually threatening – the context is key.” With any hair-raising movie, not only do we know (or hope) it’s going to be terrifying, we usually have a good idea of when the scary moments might arise, and who or what the culprit might be, alongside the knowledge that, duh, it’s not actually real life. Unless you’re watching a real-life inspired thriller like the 2018 Netflix movie Veronica, (it’s caused a flood of Twitter users claiming they had to turn it off mid-viewing it’s that terror-inducing) which is based on real police reports. Then we can’t help you…

The Control
But generally, controlling the phenomenon of fear is largely why we can’t get enough, Halloween or not. Watching a horror film can offer a sense of control that we just can’t get in everyday life – especially during peak times of political, economic and ever ecological uncertainty. Plenty of people with anxieties, for example, can become drawn to frightful films. When you sit down to watch a possessed little girl’s head spin 360 degrees (is it only us that this still terrifies?) or a person hack off his own foot in desperation to escape a madman, you know that you’re sitting down for hours of bloodcurdling fear long before the scenes unfold. Not a luxury you’re granted when confronted with real-life madness and tragedy. Margee states “The experience of feeling embodied in the moment, not thinking about the future or the past in the context of safety can be enjoyable,” while Mathias adds that the entire fiasco can serve as a morbid distraction from real life mundanity. “A horror film can put things into perspective” he says. “If you feel overwhelmed with deadlines or money worries, well at least you don’t have it as bad as the poor people who are being hacked by a maniac with a chainsaw on the screen.”

For other loud and proud gore fans, there’s a sense that being obsessed with horror films could help you actually make it through a real-life emergency. Or at least give you bragging rights when you get 95 percent likely to survive a zombie apocalypse on an online quiz. Want to survive a murderer launching a random attack on your house? Don’t hide upstairs, the greats have taught us. Just ask any slasher fan, they’ll gladly tell you their escape route if it were them being hunted by a masked killer. And with horror movies – from unexplained phantoms to psychological thrillers – notoriously being a reflection of societal anxieties on a greater level (think Get Out as a response to growing racial tensions in America or 2002’s 28 Day Later coming at a time surging with concern over scientific interference with nature) narratives gain such universal appeal. Or as Margee explains “Which monsters seem to tap into a collective tension reflect growing anxieties.” The joy can derive from a glance at the grizzly possibilities, but all while going home to our relatively safe beds when the credits roll, feeling a little more prepared should the events play out. 

Dark Desires
But, is it more than the sensation of being scared alongside the reality of actually being quite safe that horror buffs crave? Or do we just, let’s be honest, enjoy exploring the darkest sides of humanity, guns, guts and gore included? Call it morbid curiosity or Schadenfreude (the German word for enjoying people’s pains) but there’s definitely a little more at play than being practically prepared for paranormal invasions or psycho killers. Maybe it’s not the perspective of the apparent victim we’re so drawn too.

Mathias explains: “The instinct to peek into the abyss is as old as our species.” It’s this idea that has lead the media to sensationalise real-life crimes that reflect horror movies over the years. The iconic 1996 film Scream (the mask lifted from Edvard Munch’s famous painting is still widely used as a go-to Halloween costume today) is said to have inspired a series of copycat killers. More directly still, a man named Daniel Sterling stabbed his girlfriend and drank her blood after watching Interview with a Vampire in 1994, and later said “I was influenced by the movie. I enjoyed the movie.” Yikes.

While it doesn’t take much common sense to realise these cases are rare (not everyone’s drinking blood, we promise) the suggestion is such tales can awaken dark desires in some people, as if our species’ attraction to watching disturbing scenes is a way for most of us – the ones who you know, don’t chop people up with an axe after going to the cinema - to live out a kind of rooted desire to be destructive. The reality, however, is much further from the truth. Most horror fans seek joy from the genre not as an indirect way to live out their murderous alter ego, but actually to anchor their moral compass. Mathias describes that most horror films as “intensely moralistic.”

Our fascination and joy gained from sitting through two hours of haunted houses is complex – multiple things are working on different levels. While we’re peeking curiously into the dark side (because we do kind of want to see how this chainsaw murder spree thing pans out), we’re also getting a little hormone kick. We love those, after all. And while we can get the latter from adrenaline kicks like cliff diving or rollercoasters, there’s something quite unique in what cinema has to offer, as it provides viewers with all that rush and intellectual stimulation (well, the good ones; rubbish films aren’t safe from any genre) all while allowing us to plan exactly how to take down our mortal enemies should we have to. And you can hardly beat that combination when it’s all taking place in the comforts of a plush cinema while chowing down on some salt ‘n’ sweet popcorn. Hmmm, maybe I will brave the latest Halloween movie on the big screen this year after all…

Mathias Clasen on weirdly pleasing horror scenes
Jaws, 1975

The first one has to be the so-called beach scene from Jaws. It’s a wonderfully, tightly constructed scene where we are made to mirror the protagonist, Chief Brody’s, apprehension. Spielberg builds empathy through the shots of his worried face that get increasingly closer. It’s all false alarms, until we get an underwater shot (from the point of view of the shark). That’s when we know that danger is imminent. We also get some water-level shots to put us into the water.

Halloween, 1978

The cinematography in the scene from Halloween where Laurie Strode seems to have vanquished evil in the shape of Michael Myers is wonderful. We see Laurie sit in the foreground, leaned against a door sobbing with fatigue and maybe relief. And then, lo and behold, Michael Myers gets up (in a deeply disturbing mechanical way) behind her. Carpenter’s synth score loudening. We know this is bad, and we know that Laurie doesn’t know she’s in danger. It’s a typical horror film strategy.

IT, 2017

The last one has to be the first scene from the new It, where the kid finds Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the sewer. Everybody knows what’s going to happen (because they’ve read King’s same titled book or seen the old 1990 TV film), but it’s so sudden and vicious and graphic – shocking – when the clown lures the kids towards him and then tears off his arm. It’s a profoundly disturbing scene. A vulnerable kid, all on his own, confronted by a cosmic force of evil embodied in that creepy clown.

Netflix spooks
If you want more than a two hour film to get your thrills, check out these spooky series

The Haunting of Hill House

Based on the 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson, this new Netflix series serves up sixty minutes strong episodes of creepy encounters in ten doses. Which means plenty of nail-biting for horror connoisseurs to get through. It’s a classic haunted house type horror that never ceases to scare.


The scariest part of this new series? Everything about the tales told is true, or so the witnesses say. Watch as first-person accounts from people who’ve delved into the realm of the peculiar and supernatural relive their heart-stopping experiences. It’s a ‘sleep with the lights on after’ watch.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

When it’s an Archie comic with a dark reimagining, you know it’s going to be something worth cancelling plans for. The story follows 16-year-old Sabrina - half witch, half human -  as she takes on the decision to follow either the path of Light or the path of Night.

Chill nights
Feeling drawn to The Fear? Trick or treat yourself to a bloody-binge come October 31 with a marathon on OSN Movie Thriller HD. If you dare.

The Grudge

Why is this 2004 hit so chilling, you ask? Not one, but three interwoven stories unravel the consequences of the same terrible curse from different locations in the world. Sarah Michelle Geller stars in the horror remake of the Japanese film, Ju-on: The Grudge.

The Blair Witch Project

When three film students hike through the woods in a bid to film the fabled Blair Witch, they seem to vanish with only the footage to reveal what really happened. Just seeing the 1999 movie through the perspective of the victims gave it that extra fear factor.


The eighth instalment in the Saw franchise, this 2017 narrative picks up ten years after the death of the torturous villain. But residents are unsettled as bodies are found all over, each seeing a gruesome end. The release of the original in 2005 spurred more torture-heavy terrors.

Pet Sematary

Stephen King wrote this 1989 number, so you know it’s going to be bloodcurdling. A young family move to a new neighbourhood into a seemingly perfect house, bar the mysterious cemetery in the woods behind the house. They soon realise their home holds dark secrets.