Why people watch horror films

Experiments by mad scientists, torture scenes, bloody violence, terrifying creatures, zombies eating brains... All these graphic descriptions are likely to be found in horror films. Stories are usually dark, gruesome and sometimes pure evil. 

Taking into account the scenes of unpleasant behaviour, which are often quite disgusting, why would anyone want to watch horror films?

Psychologists say there are a number of reasons why people are compelled to watch horror films. In general, horror films are relatively ‘removed’ from reality (hopefully, at least), so it’s understood that one key reason people like to watch them is because it offers a form of ‘escapism’ - especially if you’re feeling bored.  

It’s understood that people like to know what makes them feel scared and ways that others feel this same emotion. Watching a horror film gives you the chance to explore this, without any threat of actual danger.

Paul J. Patterson from San Jose State University, USA, explains:  "The genre of terror addresses our archetypal fears. You can see throughout history how each generation has defined 'terror' in its own way and it becomes clear that what scares us the most is something that is difficult to comprehend or explain in a rational manner.” 

A thrill for watching horror films can go beyond the curiosity of understanding our fears and others. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2007 found, to some extent, people enjoy being scared. This study highlighted that people experience ‘fear’ in different ways. Some can benefit from unpleasant or painful situations by experiencing a flood of relief afterwards. While others simply don't experience fear to the same extreme as more sensitive people do. 

Joel Cohen from the University of Florida, and author of the 2007 study said:  "In the real world, people can experience both happiness and sadness and euphoria and anxiety at the same time. People enjoy emotions even if they come from a negative source; otherwise, life would be quite boring." 

Does our personality influence this rather curious preference for a content that evokes fear?

Research from Delaware University psychology professor Marvin Zuckerman suggests that personality traits affects the kinds of emotional sensations that we seek. 

People who look for high levels of excitement and adrenaline rushes have a ‘sensation-seeking’ trait within their personality according to Zuckerman. This high sensation-seeking personality trait affects both behaviours and choices you make. People with this trait tend to choose and enjoy watching horror films because they have a need for ‘intense’ experiences. They are also more likely to opt for extreme sports, such as skydiving or bungee jumping. 

When it comes to horror,  though the film may feel terrifying to watch, the fearful responses including; raised heart rate and blood pressure linger long after the film is over ends. This is what Glenn Sparks from Purdue University refers to as ‘excitation transfer process’. This heightened emotional state makes any experience after watching such a film feel even better, e.g. spending time with friends. 

So next time you are looking for a pick me up - why not give a horror film a try.

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