Why Do We Like Watching Scary Films?

I think people like courage. Courage does not mean not being afraid, it means feeling fear and then overcoming it. They do not enjoy the movie, but they enjoy overcoming the movie. They like to be able to stand up against something painful.

According to a 2004 paper in theJournal of Media Psychologyby Dr. Glenn Walters, the three primary factors that make horror films alluring are tension (generated by suspense, mystery, terror, shock, and gore), relevance (that may relate to personal relevance, cultural meaningfulness, thefearof death, etc.), and (somewhat paradoxically given the second factor) unrealism. Walters made reference to a number of psychological studies to support his argument. For instance:

The reasons people give here are things that make no sense to me, as they are based on feelings rather than analyzing, I for example cannot laugh at fail compilations, something bad happens, you do not laugh at that,. if you do,you see fun in others suffering, which seems bad to me.

I never find acceptable reason why people like horror movie, too.

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Watching horror, to me, is purposely and unnecessarily putting yourself through negative emotions. And if you dont experience bad emotions, then thats wrong, because not feeling them makes no sense.

So I really do not know what to do about this, because pretty much no one sees my views as good, correct or logical, and I feel kinda alone.

Now, bad to me is a single thing. just bad. black and white views. good is good, bad is bad. You should do good, you shouldnt do bad. To give an example of what I mean: I see both rape (Sexual assault, abusement, against ones will, etc) and pranks (Making someone go through negative emotions for amusement) as bad. And do not see one as more acceptable than the other, both are bad.

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OBrien, L. (2013). The curious appeal of horror movies: Why do we like to feel scared?IGN,September 9. Located at:

I actually just wrote a piece on why some people do and dont like horror – what predicts each. You can read it here:

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Negative feelings created by horror movies actually intensify the positive feelings when the hero triumphs in the end. But what about movies where the hero doesnt triumph? And even in some small studies have show that peoples enjoyment was actually higher during the scary parts of a horror film than it was after.

I really hope I didnt bother anyone… Im just, looking for understanding I guess. Is it bad? How I see horror? Am I bad? For thinking like that?

This post is written as if everyone likes horror films, and the only question is why. I hate horror films. Even listening to the audio track of a trailer for a horror film upsets me, and I avoid doing so. I found the detailed description of the contents of a horror film in the post to be too distressing to read.

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Basically, none of these theories fully explain why we love watching scary films. Different people like watching for different reasons and no theory has been put forward that explains everyones motives and reasoning. I will continue to enjoy watching even though I dont fully understand my own motives.

Does anyone perhaps know of something that could make me understand why people like horror, to convince me it is not a bad thing to be even remotely tollerant to horrors mere existence? Does anyone understand my views to begin with?

Ill just warn you here, this will be long. because I want to try explaining how my views work. I apologize in advance for it likely being a bit repetitive.

I enjoyed your article, and I have spent time contemplating this subject. I was once obsessed with the horror genre, but I can only speculate as to my motive.

Hess then goes onto outline the thoughts of Noël Carroll (a film scholar) who claimed that horror films are played out outside everyday normal behaviour, and comprise curiosity and fascination. Hess writes:

Haidt, McCauley, and Rozin (1994), in conducting research on disgust, exposed college students to three documentary videos depicting real-life horrors.  One clip showed cows being stunned, killed, and butchered in a slaughterhouse; a second clip pictured a live monkey being struck in the head with a hammer, having its skull cracked opened, and itsbrainserved as dessert; a third clip depicted a childs facial skin being turned inside out in preparation for surgery.  Ninety percent of the students turned the video off before it reached the end.  Even the majority of individuals who watched the tape in its entirety found the images disturbing. Yet many of these same individuals would think nothing of paying money to attend the premiere of a new horror film with much more blood and gore than was present in the documentaries that most of them found repugnant. McCauley (1998) posed the logical question of why these students found the documentary film so unpleasant when most had sat through horror pictures that were appreciably more violent and bloody.  The answer that McCauley came up with was that the fictionalnatureof horror films affords viewers a sense of control by placing psychological distance between them and the violent acts they have witnessed. Most people who view horror movies understand that the filmed events are unreal, which furnishes them with psychological distance from the horror portrayed in the film. In fact, there is evidence that young viewers who perceive greater realism in horror films are more negatively affected by their exposure to horror films than viewers who perceive the film as unreal (Hoekstra, Harris, & Helmick, 1999).

Again, when I see something as bad, I see it as something that should not be tolerated. To me liking horror is just as bad as raping someone. both are bad. So I have rather extreme feelings/views towards it.

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McCauley, C. (1998). When screen violence is not attractive. In J. Goldstein (Ed.),Why we watch: The attractions of violent entertainment(pp. 144-162). New York: Oxford.

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Life provides turning points of many kinds, but the most powerful of all may be character-revealing moments.

Mark Griffiths, Ph.D.,is a chartered psychologist and Directorof the International Gaming Research Unit in the Psychology Division at Nottingham Trent University.

Now before I get comments defending pranks, I say again: black and white views. The amount of bad means nothing to me, it was there and bad is bad. The fact that they feel fine or even good afterwards also means nothing to me, because in my eyes going through bad to get good is stupid, one should do something to instantly get good. I fail to see the point of going through the bad first. plus, if it involves doing something bad, it is bad to me. The result does not matter, bad is bad.

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Regular readers of my articles will know that Ilovehorror films (based on articles I have written such as thepsychology of Hannibal Lecter). Although I am not a great fan of the archetypal slasher movies (franchises such asNightmare on Elm StreetFriday the 13thHalloween, etc.), I do like a bit of schlock horror (such as theDavid CronenbergsfilmsScannersandThe Fly) as well as psychological horror (such asand). But why do we love to watch scary films? Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Utrecht (and for whom I have written book chapters on various aspects ofvideo game play) in a 2013 interview forIGN(formerlyImagine Games Network) was quoted as saying:

Areally good articleon the psychology of scary films by John Hess on theFilmmaker IQwebsite claimed there were many theories on why we love to watch horror films. I wasnt able to check out all of the original sources (as there was no reference list) but I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the theories outlined. For instance, the psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung believed horror filmstapped into primordial archetypes buried deep in our collectivesubconscious images like shadow and mother play important role in the horror genre.However, as with almost all psychoanalytic theorizing, such notions are hard to empirically test. Another psychoanalytic theory although arguably dating back to Aristotle is the notion of catharsis (i.e., that we watch violent and frightening films as a way of purging negative emotions and/or as a way to relieve pent-up aggression (an argument also proposed as a reason as to why some people love to play violent video games). Dr. Dolf Zillmans Excitation Transfer theory (ETT) is arguably an extension of catharsis theory. Hess summary of ETT notes:

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I think I craved to watch horror films as a child in order to endure fear and survive it, Perhaps subconsciously I was training myself to better endure the real-life chronic psychological terror of my home; my mother would unpredictably trigger into a rage state and become violent towards us (she had an at the time undiagnosed and untreated mental disorder.). She was as scary as any film monster, to a small child.

I cannot stand horror, at all. And I do not understand why others do, despite reading articles like this to find out their reasoning. I see the reasons given, but cannot seem to accept them as such. These reasons do not make sense to me, at all. I understand what is talked about but I just cant see those things as a reason to like horror. I want to understand but I just cant do it, and Im wondering if anyone could help with that?

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to Amusement parks. The want stimulation but

I apologize for the mega-parahraph. A page error must have deleted the spaces.

I was quite terrified of my own mother, so watching the horror films in which the victims survived and triumphed over the scary monster was gratifying: horror films with happy endings, like fairy tales, gave me hope.

I have felt this way all my life (I am now in my late 50s). I am sure there are other people like me. In fact, if you believe the work of Dr. Elaine Aron, probably about 20% of the population agrees with me. But whatever the percentage, we exist!

Great article Mark! Im a fan too and equally curious about the topic. I wrote a piece over at Motherboard on individual differences in love for horror. Its here if you want to check it out:

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I could spend a long time on this, but I will be brief. The point I wish to make is that these villains are not the only masked entities – we are the true mystery. Our life experiences, intertwined with our genetic disposition, are put to the test when watching horror.

I guess Ill clear up some stuff about myself so hopefully, if anyone replies, they understand what theyre dealing with.

According to research published by Dr. Deirdre Johnston in a 1995 issue ofHuman Communication Researchinto motivations for viewing graphic horror, there are four main different reasons for why we (or at the very least a small sample of 220 American adolescents) like watching horror movies (gore watching, thrill watching, independent watching and problem watching). These four reasons were also discussed in relation to various dispositional characteristics such as fearfulness, empathy, andsensation seeking. Dr. Johnston reported that: The four viewing motivations are found to be related to viewerscognitiveand affective responses to horror films, as well as viewers tendency to identify with either the killers or victims in these films.More specifically she reported (i) gore watchers typically had low empathy, high sensation seeking, and [among males only] a strong identification with the killer, (ii) thrill watchers typically had both high empathy and sensation seeking, identified themselves more with the victims, and liked the suspense of the film, (iii) independent watchers typically had a high empathy for the victim along with a high positive effect for overcoming fear, and (iv) problem watchers typically had high empathy for the victim but were characterized by negative effect (particularly a sense of helplessness).

As an extra Id like to add that Im actually a very emotional person, despite the typing above making me seem like the opposite. I care a lot about others, a real lot, which only makes it more difficult. When a close friend of mine, someone that matters the world to me, does something I see as bad, I get panicked, stressed, etc. Because my attempts at creating sense dont work. My heart tries to love them as the friends they are, while my mind insists i should be against them for what they did.

I have been trying my very best to understand why people like horror, and I just cant seem to do it. To me a reason to see horror as an acceptable thing must take away the Issues I have with it, which is pretty much impossible considering the issue is the very thing itself. I pretty much cant get myself to accept anything that is bad in my eyes, and remember I see things themselves as bad. Rape again for example, no one should do that. Thats how I see everything I deem bad, no one should do it. Including liking horror.

Im the other way around. I base my feelings on what I see. Horror, when seen quite literally, and without applying any personal feelings it may or may not give, is bad. It involves scary, negative and horrible things.

To me, Hitchcock is more of a suspense director than a horror director, and this makes his movies more watchable to me. Not only are most of them low on blood and guts, but they dont really require you to suspend disbelief. I find that films about clearly imaginary entities often test my patience.

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There were always subliminal messages in

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I see things in a different way than most people I know, which is why I struggle to see the reasons given here as reasons. Most people base their views (Opinion) of things on their emotions, their feelings about said subject and what said subject makes them feel, They go from there, meaning they can see horror, which is not at all about positive or good things, as positive, I think.

Michael Myers, Jason, and Leatherface all share one common link, other than being pure, nasty evil, that is. They wear a mask; presumably, this is to conceal a face that is the purest form of evil imaginable, and, as you mentioned, to buffer our fragile minds with absurd, unrealistic imagery. Sometimes the director, or script, breaks this wall by allowing us a glimpse. The outcome is variable; we may laugh, feel indifference, or, in rare cases, be genuinely frightened. For the filmmakers, the degree of success or failure is only partially under control.

People go to such films for the same reason they go

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I have a desire to be a good person, and want everything else to be good as well. It absolutely sickens me when people do something bad, as I just do not get why they would do it, or accept it being done to them.

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So, I really dont know what to do here. Im really confused and uncertain on what to do, because on one side I feel like a jerk for not accepting people how they are, but on the other I feel like showing any tolerance of allowing it to merely exist is bad, because I see bad as bad and bad as unacceptable.

Haidt, J., McCauley, C., & Rozin, P. (1994). Individual differences in sensitivity to disgust: A scale sampling seven domains of disgust elicitors.Personality and Individual Differences,16, 701-713.

Im 19 years old, and have a form of autism. This causes my reasoning to be pretty black and white in quite some scenarios. Good or bad, wrong or right, this or that, etc.

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Studies by [researchers such as Zillman] have shown that there is a significant correlation between people who are accepting of norm-violating behavior and interest in horror movies. But that doesnt explain why some viewers respond positively when the norm violators such as the sexual promiscuous teenage couple, the criminal, the adulterer are punished and killed by the movie monster. This enjoyment of thepunishmentof those that deserves it makes up the Dispositional Alignment Theory. We like horror movies because the people on screen getting killed deserve it. But this may give us insight into who the audiences want to see eat it but its not a clear picture of why horror films are popular in the first place. Another theory put forth by Marvin Zuckerman in 1979 proposed that people who scored high in the Sensation Seeking Scale often reported a greater interest in exciting things like rollercasters, bungee jumping and horror films. Researchers have found correlation but it isnt always significant. Even Zuckerman noted that picking only one trait misses the fact that there are lots of things that draw people to horror films.

So, when someone likes horror, I see it as them experiencing positive emotions towards something bad, which does not make sense. I then feel like the person should change, make sense.

For the ones who have enjoyed a stable, normal upbringing there is an opportunity to confirm our values by watching the just monster slay the bohemian grasshoppers, only to be returned tbe favor by the righteous, fearless ant. (Im referring to a fable, the Grasshopper and Ant). There are many shades of grey involved, and there is quite a bit to be learned from an individual, whether they realize it or not.

Then adding the fact that experiencing positive emotions afterwards makes no sense whatsoever to me, you did bad, so you feel bad, that makes sense to me. Here again I have the problem that everyone else seems to act out of emotion, their feelings. Doing what makes them feel good, because, well, it makes them feel good, no matter what it is. I in this case do not understand that, if something is (if seen in the way of thinking mentioned earlier) bad, you feel bad about it. thats it. I will simply not allow myself to experience any form of positivity if it involves something I deem bad. I try feeling the correct emotions, want everything to make sense.

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Hitchcock films. His films have undergone much

People go to horror films because they want to be frightened or they wouldnt do it twice. You choose your entertainment because you want it to affect you. Thats certainly true of people who go to entertainment products like horror films that have big effects. They want those effects[Horror films must] provide a just resolution in the end. The bad guy gets it. Even though they choose to watch these things, the images are still disturbing for many people. But people have the ability to pay attention as much or as little as they care to in order to control what effect it has on them, emotionally and otherwise.

Looking at the history of horror you have mutant monsters rising in 50s from our fear of the nuclear bogeyman, Zombies in the 60s with Vietnam, Nightmare on Elm Street as a mistrust in authority figures stemming from the Watergate scandals and Zombies again in the 2000s as a reflection of viral pandemic fears. But for as many horror cycles that fit the theory, there are many that dont. And horror films work on a universal level crossing national boundaries while still working in different cultures.

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Below I will attempt to explain what goes on in my head, and what I struggle with. I really hope someone here kinda understands.

Now, to attempt making you, reader, understand what I experience, try seeing horror as just that. The negative, the bad. The simple overanalytic view without applying any experiences or feelings whatsoever. Then doesnt that sound bad? If you can understand what I mean, youll agree, it does seem undeniably bad if seen in the way I see things.

Walthers, G.D. (2004).Understandingthe popular appeal of horror cinema: An integrated-interactive model.Journal of Media Psychology,9(2). Located at:

Zillmann, D., Weaver, J. B., Mundorf, N., & Aust, C. F. (1986). Effects of an opposite-gender companions affect to horror on distress, delight, andattraction.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,51(3), 586-594.

To add, the concept not for me is also a difficult thing to me. I can pretty much only apply it to things I do not deem bad, like the Digimon series not being for me because Im more of a Pokmon fan. In this case the black and white views apply, bad is bad. thats it. Bad is unacceptable. I cant see it as not for me. I see the thing itself as bad, thus anyone liking it is a bad thing to me. I cant seem to handle different views, or anything for that matter, when it does not fit in the very specific boxes I see as logical.

The Gender Socialization premise is certainly part of the pie, but I question how universal it is. A much more compelling experiment would involve the aforementioned normal group, equally divided by gender, and this would be the control. Additionally, several groups would be setup in that fashion, but they would be from different countries & cultures. They would still be considered normal in their culture. The real interest lies in the remaining groups, the options are limitless, but I am interested in those who have post-traumatic stress from horrific experiences, whether real, or due to a genetic disorder.

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Hess, J.P. (2010). The psychology of scary movies.Filmmaker IQ.Located at:

Dolf Zillmann (along with James Weaver, Norbert Mundorf and Charles Aust) put forward TheGenderSocialization theory in a 1996 issue theJournal ofPersonalityand Social Psychology(and sometimes referred to as the Snuggle Theory. Zillman and his colleagues exposed 36 male and 36 female undergraduates to a horror movie in the presence of a same-age, opposite-gender companion of low or high initial appeal who expressed mastery, affective indifference, or distress. They reported that men enjoyed the film most in the company of a distressed woman and least in the company of a mastering woman. Women enjoyed the movie most in the company of a mastering man and least in the company of a distressed man. Hess says these findings dont explain why some people go to horror films alone or what happens afteradolescence. Finally, cultural historian David Skal has argued that horror films are simply reflect our societal fears. As Hess notes:

I might expand on this when time permits.

So, I see it as bad. Its about bad things, makes people go through negative emotions, etc. It does not make sense to me why one would want that. Its bad.

Johnston, D.D. (1995). Adolescents motivations for viewing graphic horror.Human Communication Research,21(4), 522-552.

analysis. Especially Psycho and The Birds.

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Hoekstra, S. J., Harris, R. J., & Helmick, A. L. (1999). Autobiographicalmemoriesabout the experience of seeing frightening movies inchildhood.Media Psychology,1, 117-140.

Why Do We Like Watching Scary Films?


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