Why the horror genre continues to be popular

Posted: December 6, 2012 by gustafhesse in Film, Horror
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Jack Nicholson in the famous “Here’s Johnny” scene

Why do I love the horror genre? It’s something I’ve often asked myself especially when I see my friends shaking their heads vehemently and declining my invite to watch the latest horror film at the movies.

The fact that some people, like me for example, enjoy being scared out of their wits never ceases to baffle those of us who consider Freddy Krueger A Nightmare on Elm Street a slasher horror movie that should be put in deep freeze.

Cover of "Danse Macabre"

However, to those who love the genre, as well as to experts in media psychology, it makes perfect sense. Stephen King, in Danse Macabre, described “terror as the finest emotion, and so I will try to terrorize the reader.” Stuart Fischoff,  professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and senior editor of the online Journal of Media Psychology, adds: “One of the major reasons we go to scary movies is to be scared.” This enjoyment of being scared and paying to be scared applies to the horror movies. As Fischoff indicates, “We know that, in an hour or two, 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.”

According to a 1995 study, the higher people score on a scale that measures sensation-seeking, the more they like horror films. As Fischoff states,“There are people who have a tremendous need for stimulation and excitement […] Horror movies are one of the better ways to get really excited.”

But does this explain why I continue to enjoy the horror gendre, both in its filmic and written modes? It has been suggested that horror continues to enjoy a resurgence because the genre provides an opportunity for catharsis, offering the viewer emotional release and escape from the real world of bills, mortgages, and the ever-declining economy.

The catharsis theory is an appealing one. Freud had, for instance, suggested that horror was appealing because it traffics in thoughts, symbols and feelings that have been repressed by the ego but which seem vaguely familiar.

There has also been the suggestion that horror films are enjoyed by those who prefer neat absolutes whereby the rights and wrongs are clear.  According to this standpoint, horror movies appeal to those who like predictability  and there is no question about who the bad guy is. And despite the often high body count and gory narrative settings, these movies tend to end on a good note, often with a happy ending. According to this viewpoint, the danger and scares produced by horror movies tend to be reduced by increased knowledge and predictability.

As for me, the reasons why I enjoy the horror genre is because that a good horror movie or book transports the reader/viewer to some other place. Through the process of defamiliarisation, the familiar becomes strange, whereby a sense of otherness pervades our sense of what constitutes the ‘normal’. A good horror movie or book helps us negotiate this sense of otherness.


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