Halloween is only days away and with that comes the usual festivities: costumes, pumpkin carving and of course horror movies. For most people, a horror movie is a chance to experience some visceral thrills and get the heart pumping. For me, it’s anxiety-inducing nightmare fuel. If you’ve listened to our podcast at all, you might have heard me mention this once or twice. It’s something of a revelation I came too early in life, but I haven’t spent much time thinking about. What is it about me, and those like me, that makes finding the fun in horror movies so difficult? More importantly, what is it about those weirdos who actually ENJOY them?! Well, I’ve done a bit of poking around and smarter people than I might have some theories.
Way back in 2005 two researchers, Cynthia A. Hoffner and Kenneth J. Levine, published an essay titled “Enjoyment of Mediated Fright and Violence: A Meta Analysis”. The researchers examined 35 journal articles, all of which examine why people enjoyed horror movies and the like, trying to better understand something that has remained a mysterious concept. One pillar of their research concentrated on empathy. Or in this case, a lack of empathy. They concluded that those with less empathy are more inclined to enjoy a horror movie. Essentially, and if I can paraphrase/exaggerate a bit, those heartless souls don’t care about others and therefore don’t care about the characters in the movie, allowing themselves to be more detached. There has been endless debate over how true this concept is for years. Personally, it passes the smell test, but what interested me most was the idea that one particular component of empathy-related specifically to “perspective-taking, or sharing the viewpoint of another person”. This struck a nerve with me because it also explains my inability to watch comedies that feature characters embarrassing themselves on screen. For shows like The Office and those terrible American Idol auditions I experience secondhand embarrassment, but with horror films, I trade in embarrassment for terror. I can’t help but take on the emotions of those on screen. It’s actually a trait I value as a filmgoer, it allows me to further invest myself in the movies I see, but it works against me with horror.
Another notable character trait that Hoffner and Levine explored in their essay was “sensation seeking”. Basically, those who are high sensation seekers look for experiences that will make them “feel” something, with a capital 'F.' The interesting wrinkle here is that because they are always looking to achieve these emotional highs, they will begin to take pleasure in what are considered to be negative emotions, like fear, because of how powerful those emotions are. Combine that with the euphoria people feel from “surviving” these ordeals and it’s no wonder horror movies top the box office every year.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the thrill of the occasional rollercoaster as much as the next guy, but considering I also blacked out in terror when skydiving, I apparently have a threshold. With the addition of the whole empathy thing the fact that I was able to watch Alien: Covenant this year is a goddamn miracle.
At this point, it’s pretty clear that I’m essentially the opposite of the archetypal horror fan. There’s one major exception to that though. I’m a male. Across the board, the studies show that guys were much more likely to enjoy horror movies than women. Of course, much of the data relies on self-reporting, so there’s likely a good chunk of guys out there who refused to admit they get scared at the movies. I’m not one of them. So if all I have to do to avoid putting myself through psychologically traumatic experiences is speak up and announce that I’m a big scaredy-cat then so be it. Let this blog post stand as a message to those who want to invite me to see the latest horror flick. I’ll be super busy.
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