The recent premiere of Stephen King’s It remake has brought thousands of horror fanatics to theaters nationwide. And with October coming up, plenty more will flock to places like Panic Point and buy tickets for haunted houses to get in the Halloween spirit. As so many people get in various ticket lines for the sole purpose of scaring themselves, one question formulates in the minds of those who prefer tamer activities: why?
There are plenty of psychological hypotheses as to why we, as a society, enjoy horror movies. The reason is mostly based on the idea that some people enjoy the rush that scary experiences bring. However, this only holds true when those experiences are contrived. Nobody (hopefully) wants to actually be chased by a masked man wielding a chainsaw, but if they buy tickets for it, it’s fun! If the terror is artificial—if it can’t exist outside the experience, save for in our heads—then it does not pose a threat. People can go see It this weekend and not realistically worry about the chances of them being devoured by a clown.
What makes horror experiences so appealing to thrill-seekers is the sense of control. The very fact that people willingly go to movie theaters to watch horror movies means they understand that there is distance between them and the film. With haunted houses, there’s much less of a distance (which appeals to the more adventurous), but, nonetheless, it still exists. A study cited by Psychology Today sums up this concept exceptionally. In the study, a group of college students were shown three documentary videos: cows butchered in a slaughterhouse, a monkey’s skull being cracked by a hammer, and a child’s facial skin being turned inside out for surgery. According to the study, 90% of participants turned off the videos before they ended. The researchers questioned why the participants responded so negatively to the videos when they’d seen violence and gore just as bad in horror movies. The answer is unsurprising: the documentary videos were real, and horror movies are fake. Since most people watching scary films understand that the violence they see is produced on the set of a movie, they are able to put distance between themselves and the movie. This distance is not present when people watch violence in documentary-type films and videos. Think about all the horror films that begin with the words, “Based on a true story.” That phrase was intentionally placed there—whether the movie is based on true events or not. Why? Quite simply, it’s scarier. It removes some of the distance that the mind creates in order to allow a person to enjoy horror experiences without making it personal. For some, that’s exciting. For others, it’s misery. Nonetheless, when those words precede a film, it reminds the viewer, that could be you.
Let me tell you a story.
Daniel Smith and his friends went camping one September night in 1988. When they went to bed later that night, Daniel fell into an uneasy sleep. He had nightmares all night. Right before his alarm clock woke him up, he saw the silhouette of a man with a crooked smile approaching him in his dreams. When he shook off the sleep, he looked around the campsite to find that all of his friends had died mysteriously that night, with no evidence of attempted murder.
What if I told you that was a true story? Would it make it scarier? Horror filmmakers would say yes; a story similar to the one I just created was used as inspiration for Nightmare on Elm Street. A news story came out in the ‘80s about a group of 18 boys who went to bed one night and were all found dead in the morning. The Atlanta Center for Disease Control looked into a wide range of possible causes, even death by fright from nightmares. However, nothing could explain the strange mass deaths.
Nightmare on Elm Street was a huge success; it is widely considered as one of the best scary movies ever made. This shows that even when the fear comes from a truer source, there’s always an audience. As long as people can make some sort of separation between what’s real and what’s Hollywood, there will be people lining up at the box office. What does that say about us as a society? Well, let’s just say that some of us are more inclined to be thrill-seekers than others.