Psychology of scary: What keeps fans of horror movies coming back for more?

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Courtesy | Tribune News Service





There is nothing quite like the unique experience of watching a horror movie: clinging to the seats in suspense, jumping at every unknown sound and cringing at the sight of gore. Although these movies leave viewers terrified, loyal horror fans continue to line up around the theater for the newest scary flick.

Over the years, producers have amped up horror compared to earlier films. Gone are the days of Nosferatu’s shadow as he lurks up the stairs, or the Hershey’s syrup blood bath as Janet Leigh is stabbed in the shower in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Now, viewers have the pleasure of fearing the slightest movement of an inanimate object after watching “Paranormal Activity,” or anxiously waiting to see what ghastly things Ryan Murphy has up his sleeve for the next season of “American Horror Story.” These thrillers have gone from trying to make the audience jump, to now playing on psychological aspects of everyday life.

What is it about horror that leaves fans begging for the next “Saw” film, or yelling at the screen when the clumsy actor runs up the stairs? Twenty-year-old psychology major Katie Wilson from Dexter had an idea:

“I think we can’t help it. Even though people hate being ‘that person’ who gets a little too happy to be scared, it’s a fun thing to do when you’re out with your friends at the movies, holding on to one another when something scary happens, and then laughing at yourself for being so freaked out,” Wilson said.

The psychological fear that comes from these chillers is almost as high as the excitement emanated from fans, and that is largely due to the shift in horror in itself. Rather than blood, guts and gore, viewers are now witnessing exorcisms, demon possessions, and fundamental plays on the deepest fears of childhood.

Although it may seem odd to be a horror fan, it leaves a question for how a fondness for the frightening develops. Is it something one picks up throughout life, or is it biology? Humanities Department Chair Allison Fournier believes it’s a little bit of both.

“I think that most of the time, it’s all social. We’re not born with attitudes or preferences, we learn them. If you’re raised with something that is perceived as normal, then that’s normal and it will carry with you as an adult,” Fournier said.

Psychology teacher Cassandra George-Sturges mirrored this statement, stating “It all comes down to what you’re exposed to. It’s a taught trait. A lot of people are scared of things such as spiders and snakes but it all comes down to that exposure.”

Despite the petrifying feelings of dread and anxiety that comes with watching any horror movie, it’s watching gory deaths on screen that gives audiences the rush they look for, and provides producers with the key to successful horror movies.

“It’s an adrenaline rush, something about it makes us feel alive,” George-Sturges said.

This “rush” sensation is exactly what has kept fans devoted to horror over the years and is something they expect from thrillers. Thriller is a word commonly associated with horror movies because it provides a sense of danger and excitement, similar to the rush one gets from riding a roller coaster.

George-Sturges agreed, stating “It’s about drive. I love roller coasters and haunted houses, and if I don’t come out at the end scared out of my mind and ready to change my ways, I’m disappointed.”

In spite of the adrenaline rush that comes from horror movies, a large majority of people stay as far away from horror as possible, refusing to even glance at any scary clown or listen to the eerie music that comes from a movie trailer promotion. This plays back to exposure to fear and horror starting as children.

“Some people cannot handle as much as others because they weren’t exposed to horror as much. Again, it’s because the attitude to fear that is learned,” Fournier said.

“I know so many people who cannot handle any kind of horror movie because it just terrifies them, and they don’t feel comfortable with that feeling,” Wilson said. “Many of the things that are exploited in horror movies are true deep fears that people actually have, and those movies or haunted houses are too real for them.”



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