Why do we love horror movies?

Another year in a few days Halloween. A holiday that is not typical of our country, but which is slowly gaining ground, perhaps to be a date set for terror.

Throughout this week, TV channels will start showing horror movies and specials, and on the same evening of the 31st we will be able to see people in disguise roaming the streets.

Cinema of fear: the disconcerting taste for horror

If one thing is clear, it is that a large part of the population loves horror movies. But, Why do they come to love horror movies? The feelings associated with fear are generally not associated with pleasure, but rather the opposite: fear is produced by a physiological response that occurs when the chances of our lives being threatened by danger are relatively high and, therefore, we let’s learn to avoid it. However, in the cinema people invest money and time to be exposed to situations which produce terror. Why is this happening?

Many may come to think that this is due to a lack of empathy or a person’s own sadism that is politically incorrect and that once a year it can come to light. However, some theories go beyond this point of view.

Zillman’s theories on our preference for terrifying and sadistic films

To give an answer to the Zillman’s theories (1991a; 1991b; 1996), who talk about why we are drawn to dramatic characters. If you’ve ever thought about how a genre dedicated to exposing the suffering of others can come to please, the following explanation may satisfy your curiosity.

Layout Theory: The Importance of “Good” and “Bad” Characters

Each fictional story includes a plot and characters. The aim of writers with these two elements is, on the one hand, to articulate the plot to induce aesthetic pleasure in the viewer, an “engaging argument”. For this, on the other hand, you have to work on the characters, so that the spectator can put himself in his place and live his adventures in the first place. So, contrary to what one might think, it’s a process of empathy.

Nevertheless, throughout history protagonists and antagonists arise; and we don’t empathize with each other the same way. In addition, the very context of the events surrounding the protagonist is not desirable for the viewer, i.e. no one would really like to go through the same situations that happen in a horror movie.

Empathy and compassion for the characters we identify with

Layout theory explains that after the first few scenes of seeing the characters on screen, we do very quick moral assessments of “who’s good” and “who’s bad”. This way, we assign the roles to the plot and organize the expectations of what will happen. We are clear that unhappiness will begin to happen to positively liked characters, thereby generating compassion for them and gaining empathy and identification. In this way, we act as “moral observers” throughout the film, assessing whether “the facts are good or bad” and whether they are happening to “good or bad people”; create the so-called affective dispositions.

We wish the best to the right characters … and vice versa

When a positive emotional disposition develops towards a character, you want good things to happen to them and you expect bad things to happen. However, it also has a counterpart, like sand the emotional disposition generated is negative, we hope that these negative acts that the character develops have their consequences. In other words, as long as we rate him positively, we expect this character to do well, while if he is negatively, he will do badly; a principle of justice.

In this way, the attraction for these films is given by their resolution. As the minutes went by, expectations were generated about “the end of each character’s story” so that when solved it gives us pleasure. The end of the movies manages to satisfy the angst engendered by the expectations, fulfilling that ending we were waiting for.

Some examples: Scream, Carrie and The Last House on the Left

For example, these two affective and negative disposition processes are exploited in horror films. A scream” the same protagonist remains throughout the sequels, maintaining empathy and a positive affective disposition towards her and the hope that he will survive.

Another case is that of “Carrie”, in which we develop such compassion that we don’t judge the final scene as unfair. And there are also cases of the reverse process, as in “The last house on the left”, where we produce a great negative disposition towards the wicked and desire their misfortunes; a feeling of revenge that pleases.

Activation transfer theory: explaining pleasure to fear

However, the theory of the disposition that doesn’t explain why we like to feel uncomfortable having expectations that go against the character’s rating. If we want good things to happen to such a nice girl, why do we appreciate bad things happening to her? Much research reveals a principle of hedonic investment in the enhancement of dramatic characters: the more the spectator suffers, the better his appreciation of the film.

The worse the protagonist, the more we appreciate

this it is due to a process based on physiology which is explained by the theory of activation transfer. This theory asserts that when events contrary to our expectations occur, empathic discomfort is generated and, in turn, a consequent physiological reaction. This reaction increases as the protagonist’s problems pile up, while maintaining the hope of our initial expectations.

In this way, the difficulties that appear in the hero’s path increase the discomfort we feel and the fear that he will not have a happy ending. However, our hope in this remains. In this way, we react to the anguish of adversity from both paths: we want good things to happen while only bad things to happen. When it comes to the end and expectations are met, even if it is a positive emotional experience, we still maintain the physiological activation produced by misfortunes because their elimination is not immediate. This is how this “waste of excitement” maintains itself during the denouement, increasing the pleasure of the ending.

The tension is a bit addictive

Let’s just say that little by little, even if we hope it ends well, we get used to the misfortunes that happen, so that by having a happy ending, this expectation fulfilled, we appreciate it more, because we were more predisposed on the contrary. It is a process of habituation to misfortunes that makes us aware of success. The more intense the waste of excitement before the result, the more pleasure it gives us. In other words, that is to say the more tension there is in the moments before the end, the more we enjoyed it.

What do horror movies look like and why do they manage to hook us?

In this sense, he explains how horror films are articulated. At the beginning there is a presentation of the characters, and the first victims do not interfere much with the course of events. There are a large number of films in which the protagonist discovers the bodies of his comrades at the end, in the middle of the chase and reaching the climax of the tension. So, the tension is managed gradually, gradually increasing before the end.

Features of horror movies

However, the above two theories are developed by Zillman to explain, in particular, dramas, not horror movies. However, the two genres are close in their narrative, as both feature characters inflicted on them. However, there are features of terror movies that increase the effects of previous theories.

  • Number of protagonists. Most horror movies present us with a group of characters. In the beginning, any of them can be the protagonist, so our empathic activation is shared among all. As the number decreases, our empathy increases towards those who remain, thus gradually increasing the empathic identification in parallel with the physiological tension. In other words, that is to say At first we have less empathy, but as the characters disappear, our empathy for those who remain intensifies the effect of disposition theory..
  • Horror story. Watching a horror movie already calls into question its ending. Many of them have happy endings, but many more have tragic endings. Therefore, the tension of expectations adds to the uncertainty. Not knowing if you will have a happy ending increases your stress and physiological activation, as well as the pleasure after the end. Playing with the uncertainty of the ending is a hallmark of the “Saw” saga, in which the expectation is held on what each protagonist does and how that will impact the ending.
  • stereotypical characters. Many such arguments resort to the inclusion of stereotypical characters. The “silly blonde”, the “funny African-American”, the “arrogant holds” are some of them. If the film uses these stereotypes a lot, we can have less empathy with them. Plus, if a well-crafted villain profile is added to it, we can understand the antagonist better and love him to survive in the end. This explains the big sequels, like “Friday the 13th,” in which the villain has greater complexity than the protagonists and the story focuses on him.
  • setting. Unlike dramatic films, the setting of horror films predisposes to physiological activation. The sound, the image or the context itself are as important aspects as the plot they serve to increase the effects produced by the plot itself. Plus, these are things that also influence expectations, because if it’s a stormy night and the lights go out, surely something has to happen.
  • Complexity of murders. Being a horror movie, a character will surely die. With this predisposition, viewers can’t wait to see death scenes that surprise us. Rather than producing us the physiological activation that they must provoke us, since those which could have occurred before, as well as those seen in other films, produce us an addiction; you get used to seeing him die. This good can be a disadvantage, because it makes the public more demanding, the worst also determines how, throughout the intrigue, each victim develops a greater suffering; or differently from the previous one, because we are not used to it. There are several examples, like in “Nightmare on Elm Street”, where when we saw Freddy Krüeger appear, we were already afraid of not knowing what was going to happen. The “Saw” saga or the famous “Seven” are also good examples.

to summarize

So, even if it seems to be out of a lack of empathy, the processes that lead to the passion for terror are quite the opposite.

He tries to facilitate the process of empathy, to raise a series of misfortunes and to play with the expectations of the result which forms the viewer. Sorry to disappoint some readers with this because you don’t have a hidden sadist like you thought. Or at least not all. Happy Halloween for those who appreciate it.

Bibliographical references:

  • Zillman, D. (1991a). Listening to television and psychological arousal. In J. Bryant D. Zillman (Eds.), Responding to the Screen: The Process of Receiving and Responding (pp. 103-133). Hillsadale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
  • Zillmann, D. (1991b). Empathy: the effect of witnessing the emotions of others. In J. Bryant and D. Zillmann (Eds.), Responding to the screen: The process of receiving and reacting (pages 135-168). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Zillmann, D. (1996). The psychology of suspense in a dramatic exhibition. In P. Vorderer, WJ Wulff and M. Friedrichsen (Eds.), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyzes, and Empirical Explorations (pp. 199-231). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

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