What makes a horror film scary, and why, when most of the time fear is an unpleasant emotion, do people like watching horror?
Part of what makes horror films scary, according to Professor Ronald E Reggio, is that they connect with some of our biggest fears, such as death, the dark, scary places, and things that are strange or unusual. Screenwriter Ken Miyamoto adds that horror films also use anticipation and scary music to frighten us, building tension as we sense that something scary is about to happen. He says that, because we have amazing imaginations, it’s often the things we don’t see on the screen that scare us the most.
Where you are and who you are with will also contribute to how scared you feel watching a horror film. For example, some people believe that The Exorcist is one of the scariest films of all time, but when I watched it with a group of friends while I was a university student, I was disappointed by how unscary it was. In contrast, I watched The Ring alone in a strange hotel while travelling in Vietnam some years back, and (spoiler alert) when she came out of the TV screen, I was absolutely terrified. And yet I still enjoyed it – why might that be?
One explanation for why we enjoy watching horror films is that we get to experience the fear while feeling safe, as we know it’s not real. There’s a thrill to being scared, which is partly connected to changes in our bodies, psychologist Christopher Dwyer explains. When we are scared, our heart rates and breathing get faster, and we get an increase of adrenaline and other hormones, which can create a feeling of excitement, especially when we know we are safe. This can also leave us with a good feeling after a threat has gone or a scary moment has passed.
This excitement can also be transferred to other things, according to Glenn Sparks’ excitation transfer theory. For example, positive experiences that you have after the movie, like having fun with friends, will be intensified because of the excitement in your body.1 And Dwyer adds that this excitement can also be misattributed during the film – a couple on a horror movie date might like each other more, but not realise that it’s because of the pleasurable feelings in their bodies in response to fear rather than each other’s company, he says.
Another reason horror is appealing is that many of us are curious about the dark side, Dwyer says, and horror films allow us to explore that and help us to make sense of the unknown. It may even allow to us to get to know ourselves better, according to child psychiatrist Stephen Schlozman. In his TED talk, Schlozman explains that there are often profound themes in horror films, and, despite being scary, the unrealness of horror helps to create a safe space in which we can look at parts of ourselves and ask difficult questions about who we are.
Schlozman gives a scene from the 1979 film Salem’s Lot as an example of this: a boy is in his bedroom, and his little brother, who got lost in the forest and was bitten by a vampire, is outside banging on the bedroom window to be let in. The little brother is now a vampire, but he’s still a little brother, so what should the boy do? Schlozman says that even kids that are watching can sense when there is a profound question being asked. Although, ‘Would I let my brother in if he were a vampire?’ doesn’t seem profound, it can open up bigger questions, like, ‘Would I still accept my brother if he were a criminal or a drug addict?’ We get to think about these more difficult questions in the safe space of horror, which allows us to learn about ourselves, Schlozman says.
There can also be a sense of satisfaction at the end of a horror film – a feeling that you made it through. I seem to get more scared and experience less of a thrill from horror as I get older, but I recently made it through Hereditary and It Follows, and I’m pleased I did as they were both very good, but I only just made it.
IELTS Reading Questions for Why We Like Horror Films:
True / False / Not Given & Summary Completion
Sources and links from Why We Like Horror Films
– Psychology Today article by Ronald E Reggio about what makes horror movies scary.
– Article on Screencraft by Ken Miyamato about the ways horror movies scare us.
– Psychology Today article by Christopher Dwyer about why we like being scared.
– (1) Psych Central article by Margarita Tartakovsky explaining Glenn Sparks’ excitation transfer theory.
– TED Talk by Stephen Schlozman about what horror films can teach us (on YouTube).
– Photo by MontyLov on Unsplash
This Post Has 15 Comments
Thanks Nick, appreciate your generous support.
You’re welcome, Rawia.
Thanks for your positive comments.
can anyone clarify why Q3-TRUE & Q4-FALSE?
Hi. Those two were tricky, but here you go:
Question 3 – Look at the end of paragraph 4: ‘a couple on a horror movie date might like each other more, but not realise that it’s because of the pleasurable feelings in their bodies in response to fear rather than each other’s company, he says‘. = They might not realise that the pleasurable feelings (good feelings) in their bodies are coming from fear = they don’t always understand what is making them feel good = True.
Question 4 – Look at the end of paragraph 5: ‘despite being scary, the unrealness of horror helps to create a safe space in which we can look at parts of ourselves and ask difficult questions about who we are.’
There are two things there to think about:
1. It’s the unrealness of horror that helps to create a safe space (the unrealness is the cause, not the scariness).
2. It says ‘despite being scary‘. We use ‘despite’ to show a contrast and when something isn’t what we might expect. Cambridge describes it like this: ‘used to say that something happened or is true, although something else makes this seem not probable.’ They give this example: ‘Despite being overweight, he was a fast runner.’ There is a contrast there: overweight but fast; also, we expect him not to be fast because he is overweight.
Reading the article, we might expect that it feels unsafe because of the scariness, but that didn’t happen; the scariness had no effect on it feeling safe. The unrealness was the cause. = False
Hope that helps
These articles are so good inspite of having the chances of enhancing our vocabulary it also provides educative value
Besides the way Nick explained the questions they looked pretty easy inspite to f being intricate questions
Thanks once again for your support
Thanks for the nice feedback, Anes.
Glad that you like the articles.
The first horror movie I ever saw was the Texas chainsaw massacre, and then for a week I could see a chainsaw with my eyes closed, and then I couldn’t watch horror movies anymore. Later, my friend and I watched another scary movie together. When we were afraid, we would scream together and hug each other. The daring girl would cover our eyes before the scary plot appeared. It makes me feel safe, but I still can’t watch horror movies alone. The article explains why the less you dare to watch horror movies, the more you are attracted to them.
Nice story, Suky. Thanks for sharing.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a pretty intense film – scary choice for your first horror film!
My first was An American Werewolf in London. It was on TV when I was young, and I really wanted to see it, so my parents let me stay up late to watch it. If I remember correctly, I spent most of the film hiding behind a cushion and then went to bed halfway through.
P.S. Seeing chainsaws behind your eyes for a week made me smile – nice description. 🙂
Hahaha, I have a picture in my mind. That’s funny.
Thank you for the nice article.
Cool, didn’t know that horror films are such meaningful stuff.
Although I don’t think I am gonna watch it, still good to know.
Thanks for your comment.
I can’t handle horror films like I used to, but It Follows is a good one … give it a try?
Can you please explain the answer of the question 2 why it’s not T because at the end of the paragraph 4 has shown it evidence
Question 2 says: We experience less hormone changes during a horror film than with real-life threats.
The question is making a comparison between being scared watching horror films and being scared in the real world.
The end of paragraph 4 talks about hormone changes that happen when we are scared, but it doesn’t make any comparison between being scared watching horror and being scared in real life.
The answer is Not Given as there isn’t enough information in the text to say that it is true (or false).
Hope that helps.
Thanks for the info on horror movies.