August 24, 2013 3:37 pm

Horror films have been attracting viewers since the beginning of cinema. According to some psychiatrists, the modern horror film serves many of the same functions for the adolescent that the fairy tale serves for the child, for instance to warn of evil in familiar places. Horror films are designed to elicit strong emotional reactions from viewers, including fear and dread; and this they do. Nearly everyone reports having been disturbed at some time by an image from a film or television program.

The appeal of horror depends on characteristics of the viewer, the film, and the viewing circumstances.

The viewer and the film

Researchers have identified various motives for viewing horror films, including the need for excitement, the desire to feel intense emotions, and distraction from everyday concerns. Although dramatic films can fulfill some of these needs, movies depicting violence and horror have features that other forms of drama do not, including the violation of social norms and the portrayal of events seldom seen in real life.

People rarely view horror films alone. Violent entertainment appeals primarily to males, and it appeals to them mostly in groups. For many young people and adults, horror films are a topic of conversation, a source of shared experience, and a means of self-presentation. Not everyone will like the blood and gore, but many may continue to watch because of other goals, such as demonstrating their ability to tolerate it, or the desire to master the threatening images.

One study identified three factors that were important in the appeal of horror films to males aged 15-45: the excitement generated by the film (called “sensation-seeking” by psychologists, the enjoyment of stimulation or physiological arousal), the wish to see the destruction found in horror films, and the satisfying resolution usually found at the end of the film.

The setting

Horror films are typically viewed in comfortable, familiar surroundings with friends, or at least co-viewers, nearby. Violent entertainment is less appealing when one is under genuine threat or experiences fear or anxiety prior to viewing.

When humor accompanies the film, emotional reactions are milder. Viewers can limit the effects of disturbing images by distracting themselves—by looking away, thinking about something else, or analyzing the film dispassionately, like a film critic. When the violence is too real, when cues to its unreality, like music or film editing, are removed, violent entertainment loses much of its appeal.

Jeffrey Goldstein, Ph.D.
Department of Social &Organizational Psychology.
University of Utrecht, The Netherlands.

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This post was written by Nadia Vella