Psychology of Horror Films

Psychology of Horror Films

psychology of horror filmsWhat is the psychology behind why horror films are scary? And why do some like or loathe them? PsychologyItBetter finds out… Are you brave enough to join us (and dodge the curse)?

Love those late night Horror Movies?

Halloween, for me, is a bit about sweets and kids dressed up as mummies. But, really, it is far more about watching a good horror film. Indeed, in the early 90’s for folk like us who had no cable TV, it was about the only time you could see a decent one on the telly! Now, I love a good horror film. As a teenager and young adult I couldn’t get enough. I’ve not really slept properly since watching all the ‘Paranormal Activity’ franchise, but I love ’em nonetheless. My partner on the other hand can’t stand them. Why does getting the heebie-jeebies1 scare out of you appeal to some but not others? And why are horror movies scary?

Evolved to be scared? Evolutionary Psychology and Horror Films

Some researcher argue that we have evolved to find some things scary, and films which tap those do well. Indeed, we appear to be evolved to be sensitive to some stimuli (especially those we should avoid). For instance, we can be trained to be scared of (and spot!) snakes quicker than we can be trained to be scared of flowers (see 2) and we respond quicker to images of dangerous animals (in particular spiders!) than images of people and modern day potential dangers such as cars. This may explain why some of the all time monster greats (think Alien, anything based on Lovecraft, or any monsters lurking about in the shadows) are often a bit insect or snake like, and also so effective – we may simply be hardwired to be scared of them! But, as with all things, there is also a more complicated side to it all….

The psychology of the relevant, unreal horror thrill…

A key work in this area3 suggests films are scary to the extent to which they (i) generate tension (through good direction, use of gore etc – like every time there is a mirror in shot you wonder if/what is going to appear in it!) (ii) are relevant – you need to see how the issues tackled affect you – the more you can, the more disturbing it is (I buy this, since becoming a father I can’t watch horror films involving kids without getting a bit upset!) and (iii) feature unrealism – a sense that what you are seeing isn’t actually true (to avoid you just being overloaded and tuning out, as we do with real images of graphic violence). This is part of the reason young kids have a hard time if they sneakily watch horror films – they can’t separate out the fantasy from reality as easily as (most!) adults. Equally, variations in our ability to buy into fantasy narratives influences how much we are affected by them.

…or is it the rush…..

Another view on horror films is that it is the resolution of fear / stress which we love – feeling the tension build up isn’t great, but feeling it leave us is a rush4! It’s not clear why horror films with no happy ending still work, but I suspect it is because the intermittent reinforcement schedule this represents (where we often, but not always, get the desired result) may well make the ‘habit’ of horror films harder to shake off.

or a mating device?

Of course, we often watch these films with others, so perhaps that plays a role. Can horror films be a social experience, and does watching with that special someone make it better? Research5 suggests yes – and it may be a gender thing – males (actually, teenage boys in this study) enjoyed watching horror films much more when a female teen (actually a (confederate/stooge) watching it with them seemed scared. In contrast, female teens enjoyed films less when male stooges squirmed like big-old-scardy cats. Of course, this could all be raging hormones and boys hoping to get lucky and grab a snog (which, as we can mistake fear arousal for arousal associated with attraction6, is actually not too daft!) – but we all know what happens when the person we are watching with jumps!

OK, but who likes horror films and why?

As I said above, I used to love horror films, but these day watch a lot less. Equally, my partner is really not fussed by them at all. Interestingly, there seems to be quite large differences in who likes horror films (both the gory and psychological kind)4. People who are high in sensation seeking (looking for new experiences, or high levels of arousal) tend to like horror films more – and guess which demographic has the highest level? Yep – teenage boy and young men! Equally, other work shows that people low in empathy like gore-fest films (which, to be honest, have never done it for me) much more. Finally, people higher in empathy seem to like psychological (rather than gory) horror more.

So, what is it about scary films which make them so good (for some of us?). The research suggests that if a film fits your personality, you are watching with others, hits some evolutionary buttons, gets the right level of tension, relevance and unrealism for you as an individual it’ll work. So, my ultimate horror film would probably involve monsters with snake like heads rejecting my academic journal papers over and over again. Oh. Wait. The unrealism isn’t quite there……

The curse of PsychologyItBetter…..

Now, before you go, I must warn you of something. Now you have read this post, you must send it on to ten people you know. If you do not do this within one week my demon doppleganger will jump out of a mirror and gently berate you. Maybe. Probably not. Actually, if they even showed up, they would probably say hi and offer you a biscuit or something.


I avoided being cursed for eternity by reading PsychologyItBetter’s blog on scary films! Share on X

Have a spooky evening!

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  1. A technical term us psychologist use 
  2. Öhman, A., Flykt, A., & Esteves, F. (2001). Emotion drives attention: detecting the snake in the grass. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130(3), 466. 
  3. Model, A. I. I. (2004). Understanding the popular appeal of horror cinema: An integrated-interactive model. Journal of Media Psychology, 9(2) 
  4. Hoffner, C. A., & Levine, K. J. (2005). Enjoyment of mediated fright and violence: A meta-analysis. Media Psychology, 7(2), 207-237. 
  5. Zillmann, D., Weaver, J. B., Mundorf, N., & Aust, C. F. (1986). Effects of an opposite-gender companion’s affect to horror on distress, delight, and attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(3), 586. 
  6. White, G; Fishbein, S; Rutsein, J (1981). “Passionate love and the misattribution of arousal”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 41: 56–62. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.41.1.56. 

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