I think most of us aficionados of horror and the macabre have all been there at some point or another: the time when your admiration for the genre is relayed to a non-enthusiast. You get that look that says it all; the look that says you surely must be psychopath. What other explanation could there be?
You must have a collection of missing pets’ body parts in your deep freezer. Didn’t little Fluffy from down the road recently go missing? Oh my god, why did they just ask to borrow the shovel? Was it to bury their latest victim? Hmm… this Crème brûlée tastes different… did they lace it with arsenic?
Of course, that is not the only reaction you will get when professing your love of horror to an innocent. Another common reaction is one of total confusion. Why on earth would you want to be scared? To some, it is downright masochistic behaviour.
There have been several theories over the years as to the reason why people like horror, and what makes up their psychological profile.
Catharsis – the purging or discharging of emotional tensions through various art mediums that results in the alleviation of those emotional tensions. As Wes Craven said in an interview, he believed that people don’t go to horror films to have fear put in them, but rather, to have it taken out.
Excitation Transfer Theory – Dolf Zillmann theorized that arousal by one or more events can then enhance our responses to subsequent events shortly afterward by the transfer of the residual arousal.
Sensation Seeking Personality – This personality trait as identified by Zukermann (1979) in his Sensation Seeking Scale is one which is inclined toward disinhibition, boredom susceptibility, and seeking out experiences of thrill and adventure. Studies by Tamborini et al. (1987) showed a positive correlation between those who had high sensation seeking personality scores with those who enjoyed horror films.
The Psychoanalytic Explanation – Freudian theory posits that horror and the macabre touch on the fears, desires and urges of the unconscious mind that our ego and superego tries so hard to bury. Those secret desires and feelings are often repressed, or locked inside, because they aren’t “socially acceptable”, which, according to Freud, can lead to neurosis.
For Carl Jung, horror touches on important primordial images, also known as archetypes, that live in the human collective unconscious. One such archetype is that of the “shadow” – the unknown, dark part of our personality that our ego works very hard to keep buried. Jung believed that “in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is the seat of creativity.”; so that for some, it may be, ‘the dark side of his being, his sinister shadow…represents the true spirit of life as against the arid scholar.' Ultimately, the acceptance of the shadow within us is required if we are go down the path of individuation (the process of psychological integration).
Adrenaline Rush – watching horror films tickles our fight or flight responses, releasing adrenaline and thereby tension. Basically, it feels good!
Curiosity – humans are curious creatures, some with morbid curiosity. Watching a horror film can feed that curiosity. Who doesn’t want to see what is looks like when some poor unsuspecting schmuck gets his eyeball poked out and put in a blender?
I think that all of the above theories have merit, and that many of us that enjoy horror would likely identify with more than one of them, depending on the particular day and the film we are choosing to watch.
But here is where I feel a lot of the theories fall short. They mainly presuppose that a fear response is a guaranteed outcome (with the exception of the psychoanalytic theories and morbid curiosity).
Not all horror films are created equally, and not all films classified as “horror” are all that scary for some of us. It is highly subjective. Sure, I love to have the pants scared off me, but it rarely happens from watching a movie, and if it does, I am extremely impressed. In most cases, I am just looking to be entertained, or to get a good laugh. For me, films like Return of the Living Dead or The Janitor are downright hilarious. The Evil Dead is amazing for its campy and antiquated special effects, but while it would make my sister-in-law suffer nightmares for years, I will only be suffering sore abs from having laughed too hard.
What do think about these theories? Do you relate to any of them?
1. Kaufman, C. Three-Dimensional Villains: Finding Your Character’s Shadow
2. C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (London 1983) p. 262