Friday, October 26, 2012

Why do we watch scary movies?

My girlfriend, who has little to no tolerance for being scared, recently asked why I watched horror films. How was it that I could derive any pleasure out of films that disturbed me? With Halloween less than a week away, it is a question worth pondering. Why is it that many of us seek out fear whether through extreme activities such as skydiving, going to a haunted house, reading a creepy book or watching a frightening film?

I turned to friends, some who work in the film industry, and asked them what they thought the impetus behind watching scary films is?

Meagan Frappiea, an assistant editor for Ken Burn's Florentine Film, suggests that horror films allow us to "grapple with our own inevitable death" and face our anxieties by putting them into a larger context that makes them less formidable.

"Seeing how warped and twisted the human mind can become gives us a basis of comparison for ourselves and those around us," Frappiea said. "Ultimately, I think reveling in our fears as a form of entertainment makes them less intimate and consuming. It's a visceral emotion we can share. It takes the boogie man out of our head and puts him on the screen."

Frank Farley, a doctor of psychologist at Temple University, discussed in a WebMD article this idea of needing to explore things different from our own life and trying to understand the unknown.

"There's a long history of people being intensely curious about the 'dark side,' and trying to make sense of it," Farley said in the article. "Through movies, we're able to see horror in front of our eyes, and some people are extremely fascinated by it. They're interested in the unusual and the bizarre because they don't understand it and it's so different from our everyday lives."

By exploring things that are different from our life it also helps to make our own lives seem normal and make our own problems pale in comparison to the horrific images on the screen. This perhaps holds most true for people who have to deal with terrible things because of their line of work.

"I think when you see horrible things in real life — like accidents, fire victims, rape victims, literally holding amputated limbs in your hands — you might crave seeing something worse to 'normalize' your own experience," Ben Hammond, whose girlfriend is a firefighter/paramedic, said. "There's a seemingly bizarre embracing of death [in the fire and rescue culture] and its inevitability, evidenced by frequent use of skulls in the fire symbology. As was explained to me, there's no point in trying escape or ignore death, as you face it every day in both your patients, your colleagues and yourself. Instead, it's almost treated as a formidable opponent that demands your utmost respect."

In the same WebMD article Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication at Purdue University, suggested that there is gratification in watching and surviving a horror film.

"It's not that they [horror fans] truly enjoy being scared," Sparks said. "But they get great satisfaction being able to say that they conquered and mastered something that was threatening. They enjoy the feeling that they 'made it through.'"

Leon Rappoport, a professor of psychology at Kansas State University, brought up a similar idea in the WebMD article. For adolescents there's the appeal of horror films being taboo. We weren't allowed to watch these films as kids, so there's a draw to the forbidden.

"Most of these films depict transgressions of conventional values and morality," Rappoport said. "There's an attraction to their 'forbidden' nature, in the same way that many adolescents want to know what it's like to drink too many beers, smoke cigarettes, or drive their car too fast."

That statement rings true to me, and probably just about anyone. While I'm by no means a horror aficionado, there was a curiosity to explore these films as I got older. But I quickly found where my line of interest was.

Beyond mere escapism, I watch films to understand the world around me. There's solace in watching a film (or reading a book or listening to song, for that matter) that one can relate to or that helps make a bit more sense of life. I admire any film that gets some sort of emotional or intellectual response from me, and sometimes that emotion is fear.

Some ideas, the exploration of human nature, for example, can only be addressed by going to dark, frightening places. I find value in going to those dark places, but only if I go there for a reason. Horror films that are gratuitously gory and violent without any meaning or emotional grounding have no appeal to me.

For Blake Merriman, the writer and one of the leads of the forthcoming indie film "Drinking Games" (, the root of our fascination with fear is evolutionary.

"Fear is a very primal emotion," Merriman said. "The reason for its existence seems very clear: survival. Fear keeps us from doing stupid things. Fear keeps us from changing patterns that have kept us alive thus far. I would argue that fear is the strongest, most hard-wired and fundamental emotion we have."

Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft famously said something very similar: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."

Merriman believes modern life is largely one without fear and that we feel as if something is missing without exercising our instinctual fear mechanism. It is through horror films that we are able to activate this most basic part of our reptilian brain.

"The really quality intense thrillers, the really scary movies, like 'Alien,' 'The Shining,' 'Psycho,' etc. engage us, activate that fear, and get our adrenaline pumping," Merriman said. "It's giving our hard-wired, primal fear mechanism a solid workout. Having a full experience from a solid horror/thriller movie often feels the same as having just had sex — another hard-wired, evolutionary mechanism for survival. And, hey, it's safer than jumping out of a plane or engaging in a gunfight."

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