Why Do People Watch Horror?

Since the creation of the first horror movie in the early 1900s, the genre has been one of the most popular genres of all time. Personally, I hate horror and all the jumpscares that come with it. Still, many people love horror and I have no idea why. A theme we are learning in our current project is that horror, and frankly all entertainment media, is a reflection on our society. For horror specifically, it is often a mirror that reflects society’s fears and anxieties. Issues and conflicts of the time are often used as antagonists in horror films. So my question is why would people subject themselves to horror if it is supposed to be a reflection of their fears of the time?

Godzilla (1956) – IMDB

An article about horror’s social commentary through the 2010s written by Grace Anderson on Warped Perspective perfectly highlights how horror has been used for decades to shine a light on social fears and anxieties. In the 50s the world was in the midst of the Cold War, so monster movies like Godzilla (1956) and apocalypse movies like The War of the Worlds (1953) were all the rage. Movies like The Fly (1958) focus on anxieties stemming from rapidly advancing technology and the scientists who were at the head of it all. 70s horror introduced the slasher genre, with films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978) tackle themes brought by increased violence and serial killers at the time. Tropes like “the final virgin girl” were arising in response to shifting attitudes on virginity and “waiting until marriage”.

Halloween (1978) – IMDB
Get Out (2017) – IMDB

Especially in the last decade, movies have increasingly become more political. This makes sense since our political landscape is undergoing massive changes. The advances in the LGBTQ2IA+ community and racism have become wonderful topics for horror directors. Films like Red State (2011) and Get Out (2017) cover these topics, with the latter becoming one of the most popular horror films of the decade. So if horror really is supposed to be a reflection of society’s fears, why does society watch them?

An article about why people love horror on Ascend by Haiyang Yang and Kuangjie Zhang says that people expose themselves to horror films in search of “mental or physical stimulation”, both positive and negative. Horror films trigger releases of adrenaline, which result in more energy and heightened senses. Horror is more commonly enjoyed by those who enjoy the thrill and anticipation of the genre. However, the article goes on to say that in order for one to fully enjoy horror, they must have what is called a “protective frame.” One must know that the terror is not actually near us and that they are physically safe, and that one must detach the film from real life. So if horror is a mirror to the world’s problems, is one ever truly “safe” from the terror in the film?

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) – Wikipedia

After watching a horror film, one tends to feel relaxed and confident. This is called post-horror relaxation, a sense of relief once the ordeal is over. Many people watch horror films simply for the bragging rights. Many find that feeling of accomplishment after overcoming the horrors of the film and walking out okay. This tends to lead to confidence in handling similar situations. Whether that feeling of confidence is inflated or not, a study conducted over the pandemic by a group of Danish researchers proved that people who watched horror were psychologically better prepared for the struggles of isolation and Covid-19. They showed greater resilience and felt more prepared than one who doesn’t watch horror. 

So going back to my question, people who enjoy watching horror that is a reflection of society’s do so to experience a possible outcome of the future. If a zombie apocalypse is imminent, one who watched The Walking Dead is likely better off than someone who didn’t watch it. True or not, one can’t deny the logic behind it. Personally, if I’m going to be undergoing an apocalypse I wouldn’t want to watch a movie about the gruesome ways I could die, but it seems like I’m the one at a disadvantage here. Whether you are an adrenaline junkie or just a coward like me, you cannot deny the role that horror plays in our society and facing our fears. 

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