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Why do we like horror movies?

Why do we like horror movies?

April 29, 2024

Another year in a few days is again Halloween . A celebration that is not typical of our country, but little by little it is gaining ground, maybe because a date designated for terror .

Throughout this week, television channels will begin to broadcast movies and horror specials, and on the night of the 31st we will see people in disguise hanging around the streets.

Film of fear: the disconcerting taste for horror

If something is clear is that a large section of the population we like horror movies. But, Why do they come to like horror movies? The sensations associated with fear are not usually associated with pleasure, but rather the opposite: fear is produced by a physiological response that appears when the chances of seeing our life threatened by danger are relatively high and, therefore, we learn to avoid it. However, in the cinema people invest money and time in being exposed to situations that produce terror. Why does this happen?

Many may think that it is due to a lack of empathy or a sadism of the person who is politically incorrect and that, once a year, it can come to light. However, there are theories that go beyond this vision.

Zillman's theories about our preference for terrifying and sadistic films

To give some answers you can apply the Zillman's theories (1991a; 1991b; 1996), who talk about why we are attracted to dramatic characters . If you have ever thought about how a genre that is dedicated to exposing the suffering of others can come to like it, the following explanation may satisfy your curiosity.

Dispositional Theory: the importance of "good" and "bad" characters

Every fictional narrative includes a plot and characters. The aim of the screenwriters with these two elements is, on the one hand, to articulate the plot to induce an aesthetic pleasure in the viewer, an "argument that engages". For this, on the other hand, it is necessary to work the characters, so that the spectator can put himself in his place and live his adventures in first skin . Therefore, unlike what can be thought of, it is a process of empathy.

However, protagonists and antagonists emerge in every story; and we do not empathize in the same way with each other. Moreover, the same context of events that surrounds the protagonist is undesirable for the viewer, that is, no one would really like to live the same situations that happen in a horror movie .

Empathy and compassion towards the characters with whom we identify

The dispositional theory explains that after the first scenes of seeing the characters on screen, we make very quick moral evaluations of "Who is the good" Y "who is the bad guy". Thus, we award the roles to the plot and organize the expectations of what will happen . We know that positively valued characters will start to suffer misfortunes, generating compassion towards them and gaining empathy and identification. In this way, we exercise "moral observers" throughout the film, assessing whether "facts are good or bad" and if they occur to "good or bad people"; creating what called affective dispositions.

We wish the best to the good characters ... and vice versa

When a positive affective disposition develops towards a character, it is desired that good things happen to him and he is afraid of the anticipation that bad things can happen to him. Now, it also has a counterpart, since itIf the affective disposition generated is negative, it is expected that these negative acts that the character develops will have their consequences . That is, as long as we value positively, we expect that character to do well, while if it is negatively, it will go bad; a principle of justice.

In this sense, the attraction to these films is given by its resolution . Throughout the minutes are generated expectations of "how should the story of each character should end", so that to be resolved, we enjoy. The end of the films manages to satisfy the anguish generated by the expectations, fulfilling that end that we expected.

Some examples: scream, Carrie Y The last house on the left

As examples, these two processes of affective and negative disposition are exploited in horror films. In "Scream" the same protagonist is maintained throughout the sequels, maintaining empathy and a positive affective disposition towards her and the expectation that it will survive.

Another case is that of "Carrie", in which we develop such compassion that we do not judge the final scene as unjust.And there are also cases of the opposite process, as in "The last house on the left", where we produce a great negative disposition towards the villains and we wish their misfortunes ; a feeling of revenge that pleases.

Theory of activation transfer: explaining the pleasure of fear

However, the disposition theory It does not explain why we like to feel discomfort having expectations contrary to the valuation of the character . If we want good things to happen to that good girl, why do we enjoy when bad things happen? Many investigations reveal a principle of hedonic investment in the assessment of dramatic characters: The more suffering the viewer is provoked, the better their evaluation of the film .

The worse the protagonist is, the more we enjoy

It it is due to a physiologically based process that is explained by the theory of activation transfer . This theory states that as events that are contrary to our expectations occur, empathic discomfort is generated and, in turn, a consequent physiological reaction. This reaction increases as the problems accumulate for the protagonist, while still maintaining the hope of our initial expectations.

In this way, the difficulties that appear in the path of the hero are increasing the discomfort we feel, and the fear that it does not have a happy ending. However, our hope in it still stands. In this way we are reacting to the anguish of the contrariety of both ways: We want good things to happen at the same time that only bad things happen. When the end is reached and expectations are met, even though it is a positive emotional experience, we still maintain the physiological activation produced by the misfortunes, since its elimination is not immediate. This is how these "residues of excitement" are maintained during the denouement, increasing the pleasure of the end.

The tension has something addictive

Let's say that little by little, although we hope that it ends well, we get used to the occurrence of misfortunes, so that having the happy ending, that expectation fulfilled, we enjoyed it more, because we were more predisposed to the contrary. Is a habituation process towards the misfortunes that sensitize us towards successes. The greater the intensity of excitation residues prior to the outcome, the more pleasure it causes us. That is to say, The more tension appears in the moments before the end, the more we enjoy this one .

How are horror movies and why do they get hooked?

In this sense, it explains how horror films are articulated. At the beginning there is a presentation of the characters, and the first victims do not interfere greatly in the course of events. There are a large number of films in which the protagonist discovers the corpses of his companions at the end, in the middle of the chase and achieving the climax of tension. So, Tension is managed progressively, gradually increasing before the end .

Characteristics of horror films

However, the previous two theories are elaborated by Zillman to explain, especially, the dramas, not the horror movies. However, both genres are close in their narrative, since both present characters who suffer misfortunes. Even so, there are features of horror films that increase the effects of previous theories .

  • Number of protagonists . Most horror films 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 that still remain, thus progressively increasing empathic identification in parallel to the physiological tension. That is to say, at first we empathize less, but as characters disappear, our empathy increases for those who are intensifying the effect of dispositional theory .
  • Narrative of terror . Watching a horror movie puts us in doubt about its ending. Well, many of them have a happy ending, but others have a tragic ending. Therefore, the tension due to expectations is compounded by the uncertainty . Not knowing if it will have a happy ending, increases tension and physiological activation, as well as pleasure after the end. Playing with the uncertainty of the end is a feature of the saga of "Saw", which keeps the expectation about what each protagonist does and how it will affect the end.
  • Stereotypical characters . Many of the arguments of the genre resort to include stereotyped characters. The "dumb blonde", the "funny African American", the "arrogant hunk" are some of them. If the film uses these stereotypes a lot, we may empathize less with them . What's more, if a well-developed villain profile is added to this, it is possible that we empathize more with the antagonist and that we like him to survive at the end.This explains the great sequels, such as "Friday the 13th", in which the villain has a greater complexity than the protagonists and the story focuses on him.
  • Atmosphere . Unlike dramatic films, the setting in horror films predisposes to physiological activation. The sound, image, or context in itself, are as important as the argument, since they serve to increase the effects produced by the plot itself . Moreover, they are elements that also influence expectations, since, if it is a stormy night and the lights go out, surely something will happen.
  • Complexity of murders . Being a horror movie, surely some character is going to die. With that predisposition, the spectators hope to see scenes of death that surprise us. Rather that they produce the physiological activation that should provoke us, since those that may have occurred previously, as well as those seen in other films, produce a habituation; we get used to seeing die. This may well be an inconvenience, since it makes the audience more demanding, but it also determines how, throughout the plot, each victim develops greater suffering; or in a different way to the previous one, so that we do not get used to it. There are several examples, as in "Nightmare on Elm Street", in which to see Freddy Krüeger appear and we are scared for not knowing what will happen. The saga "Saw" or the famous "Seven" are also good examples of this.


So, although it seems that it is due to lack of empathy, the processes that lead to the passion for terror are the opposite .

It tries to facilitate the process of empathy, pose a follow-up of misfortunes and play with the expectations of the outcome that forms the viewer. Sorry to disappoint some readers, since you do not have a hidden sadist how you thought. Or, at least, not all. Happy Halloween for those who enjoy it

Bibliographic references:

  • Zillman, D. (1991a). Television viewing and psychological arousal. In J. Bryant D. Zillman (Eds.), Responding to the screen: Reception and reaction process (pp. 103-133). Hillsadale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
  • Zillmann, D. (1991b). Empathy: Effect of bearing witness to the emotions of others. In J. Bryant and D. Zillmann (Eds.), Responding to the screen: Reception and reaction processes (pp. 135-168). Hillsdale, N.J .: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Zillmann, D. (1996). The psychology of suspense in dramatic exposition. In P. Vorderer, W. J. Wulff, & M. Friedrichsen (Eds.), Suspense: conceptualizations, theoretical analyzes, and empirical explorations (pp 199-231). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Why Do Some People Love Horror Movies? (April 2024).

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