Psychology of Fear: Why do we love watching horror movies?

Do we love the fear and violence that these movies present us with? For many of us, being scared out of our wits seems like a fun concept!

Psychology of Fear: Why do we love watching horror movies?

Ritu Singh

Most of us can't get enough of horror movies! These movies have delighted audiences all over the world and entertained our basest instincts with horrifying gore, monsters, insanity and the supernatural. What is with the scary haunted houses, uncanny settings, eerie sounds that titillate our senses so much? Do we love the fear and violence that these movies present us with? For many of us, being scared out of our wits seems like a fun concept!

As we watch such scary movies, our palms turn sweaty, skin temperature drops, muscles become tense and blood pressure spikes. The more these things happen, the more fear we experience and the more we claim to enjoy the movie.

So, why are people drawn to it? Following are some possible theories and studies to explain why do these movies fascinate us:

  • Catharsis: Long back, Greek Philosopher Aristotle posited that people were attracted to scary stories and violent dramatic plays because it gave them a chance to purge their negative emotions- a process he called catharsis. So, if we go by his theory, that means we watch violent movies and play violent video games to release the pent up feelings of aggression.
  • Psychoanalytic theory by Freud and Jung: To Freud horror was a manifestation of the “uncanny,” reoccurring thoughts and feelings that have been repressed by the ego but which seem vaguely familiar to the individual. Jung, on the other hand, argued that horror gained its popularity from the fact that it touched on important archetypes or primordial images that he said resided in the collective unconscious. 
  • Curiosity: As human beings born with a super active brain, we are a curious lot. We loved to be shocked and what drives this is morbid curiosity.
  • Intense emotions: Some people like to watch horror because they want to vicariously experience complex and extreme emotional content.
  • Adrenaline rush: When we watch scary movies, we can face your fears, but since we know that it's just a movie we don't have to face anything in reality. For the time being, it tickles certain fight or flight responses that are entertaining, the release of tension, over and over until a hopefully cathartic ending. So, just for a short span of time, we are willing to endure the terror in order to enjoy a euphoric sense of relief at the end. We seem to enjoy the adrenaline rush of being scared while being safe.
  • Excitation transfer process: This is another important theory about scary movies. According to Glenn Sparks, one reason for the appeal is how you feel after the movie. Sparks’s research found that when people watch frightening films, their heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increases. After the film is over, this physiological arousal lingers, he said. That means that any positive emotions you experience are intensified. Instead of focusing on the fright you felt during the film, you recall having a great time. And you’ll want to come back for more, he said.
  • Excitement: A scientist also says that people enjoy excitement, even if it’s from a negative source, otherwise, things could be pretty dull.
  • Sensation-seeking: Other theories relate to the sensation-seeking personality types. People who seek higher levels of arousal thoroughly enjoy the response -heightened feelings of awareness when their bodies go through intense experiences. These experiences range from watching horror films to skydiving and bungee jumping.
  • Dispositional Alignment: People seem to enjoy the violence in horror movies when it is directed against those they believe are deserving of such treatment. This observation gave rise to dispositional alignment theory in which it is hypothesized that a person’s emotional reactions to events portrayed in a horror film can be traced back to the dispositional feelings they have for the person involved. 

Love them, hate them but these movies will continue to feed our primal need to become scared!