The Psychology of Horror Movies

First of all, let me acknowledge that this blog and my social media have taken a two-year break.

A LOT has happened. To all of us: COVID. To me: My son was born in March 2020, when COVID and lockdowns really hit us here in Minnesota. On top of that, we were spending time in and out of the hospital with his health conditions. Fast forward one year, my husband and I bought a new house and I started a new job in 2021. Both are great things, but some growing pains for sure. In early 2022 we lost our baby girl. I plan to write more about all these experiences eventually, but I think as a welcome back to myself, I’ll start with something a little lighter to me: horror movies!


It’s Spooky Season!


I am not a horror movie fan…except for during the month of October. My husband and I will binge horror movies all month. I kind of like getting a little freaked out, and I always wondered why. Good thing I like research!


The Research


First things first: What makes a “good” scary movie?


Of course, we all have our preferences when it comes to what is scary for us. This is likely due to both biology and experience. For example, I enjoy psychological thrillers (of course) and some good jump scares. My husband enjoys a little more sci-fi-based horror movies and appreciates old movies with good practicals. Many researchers have found that “proximity and unpredictability” are two factors that can create a good scary movie. The characters need to be somewhat relatable, or at least in relatable situations, along with a story twist or well-timed jump scares. Think of some common themes in horror movies: characters finding themselves stranded, sick, or in an unexpected dangerous situation—this could easily happen to us!


Side story: When I was younger, my parents took my brother and me to a cabin in the woods in a small town. We went to a flea market in town; I was somehow convinced there was a cult in this town and we were in danger. I have no idea where this thought came from, but it still gives me the heebie-jeebies. (I still think something was up with that town.) My parents assured me I was safe, but it would make a good horror flick. . . .


The unpredictability part, well, think about it. Do you hate ambiguity? Many of us do. This is what the unknown aspects of a horror movie instill in us. It permeates a sense of isolation, loneliness, and uncertainty. These are aspects that can make a good horror movie.


Sounds also play a powerful part in horror movies: a squeaky door hinge, slow footsteps up the stairs, or unsettling music. They can create strong feelings of suspense, fear, tension, anger, and other emotions. The opposite is important too: silence. Silence can create deep anxiety for many (myself included). Then there are body noises: the tearing of skin or fearful screams. Honestly, just writing that gives me the shivers. Biologically, our reptilian brains know that those sounds are usually a sign of danger!


So then there is the inevitable “jump scare”. One reason people like horror movies is because the suspense creates a sensation in us, mentally, emotionally, and physically. We are social creatures; we like engagement and sensation. Humor movies can do the same. We might physically laugh or giggle or curl up with warm-fuzzies in a classic rom-com. But fear creates a different kind of sensation. Arousal is exciting and rewarding, so that sudden jump creates a weird kind of pleasure for us.


Other aspects that make a good horror movie:


Darkness - Biologically we are meant to sleep in the dark. When we were hunter/gatherers, the dark was unsafe to be in because we couldn't see predators. So, evolutionarily, our brains want us to be in a safe place when it is nighttime. Also, you can find common themes that “evil” or “bad” things happen in the dark and come from the bottom of the screen in horror movies. Think about where else you hear that in life. For example, it is common that people to refer to hell as “below” or “down” —horror movies totally play off this.


Non-typical phobias - Though spiders or monsters can be scary, research now suggests that things like this are overdone and audiences need more novel fear-based entertainment. (Interestingly, it seems horror movies have also taught us to fear certain things. For example, cemeteries are actually quite safe, but our general discomfort around death as a culture + scary movies = fear of cemeteries.)


So why do we like it?!


Physiologically, it gives us an adrenaline rush. We know that this rush of chemicals to the brain can give us enjoyment, even in the midst of fear. Relief can bring the same. You can probably think of your own experience where you were scared and then relieved when you realized something was not truly life-threatening (i.e. you drive over a hill and there is a traffic jam; you quickly hit the brakes and stop just in time to avoid a crash). Danger and excitement look very similar to your brain! You may have been shaky for a while or needed to step away and have some water to calm your nervous system down. Same idea for horror movies. We are relieved that in the end, it is just a movie.


But we might still need to come down from the rush. I know I need to watch a quick episode of something funny and light-hearted, like Bob’s Burgers, before I can go up to bed after a horror movie. This relief, and knowing you are safe, is also a big reason why we like horror movies. We wouldn’t go to the movies if we knew we’d actually be murdered!


Ok, but what about haunted houses? The same idea, we know it is simulated fear. Our brain often assumes things are “real” (think: optical illusions) so when we go into a situation knowing it is just a movie or haunted house, we preemptively know it’s not real. It’s the engagement, and again, the relatable/familiar parts of a horror movie, that get to us. That makes sense, right?! I know, the brain is weird.


Research has also suggested that “transporting” to the darker side of life can provide “self-escaping and alternative experiences” which people enjoy. I can relate to this—a good horror movie can certainly distract me from the stressors of real life and keep me engaged.


Some research has shown that personality type can affect our preference for horror movies and genres. For example, those with more empathy tend to like horror movies less (hi, it’s me again). Occupation can play a role, too. One study found that nursing students were less disturbed and less scared by graphic medical footage than psychology students. This isn’t new to nursing students, so it causes less stimulation for them. Makes sense that our own experiences and interests play into what we enjoy or find exciting. To that end, those who consider themselves “thrill-seekers” are likely to enjoy horror movies more than others.


Interestingly, the sensation-seeking part of horror movies can also be different. One study showed that men were seeking the novel fear, whereas women were likely seeking an equitable ending. (Many studies found that men in general enjoy scary movies more than women.) Some of us also just need more mental sensation than others. Just like extroverts need more time with people to gain their energy, and introverts need more time alone, some people just need more simulation and may find that via horror movies. Of course, there has also been research that shows those who are narcissistic or sadistic like horror movies more than others, but of course, that can’t be generalized.


Real Life Takeaway


The common themes in the research I reviewed were:

  1. suspense can create a good horror movie, and

  2. we like horror flicks because we are sensation-seeking creatures.

People aren’t inherently weird for liking horror movies, and though I couldn’t find anything specific around the season and Halloween, I have to hypothesize that when the days are getting shorter and the weather is getting cooler, it adds an extra little scare factor.


It has been shown that horror movies can cause legitimate anxiety, distress, and sleep disturbances in some (there are some very interesting special cases with PTSD symptoms out there if you want to go down a Google hole).


So grab the popcorn, but take care while watching.

References


Araújo, A., Luz, M., Berger, W., Pagotto, L., Figueira, I., & Mendlowicz, M. (2019). Can horror movies induce PTSD-like syndrome? Revista Latinoamericana De Psicopatologia Fundamental, 22(2), 360-375.


Luo, Y. (2016). Transporting to the Dark Side: The Role of Transportation Plays in Enjoyment of Horror Movies. The Chinese University of Hong Kong (Hong Kong).


Martin, G. N. (2019). (Why) Do you like scary movies? A review of the empirical research on psychological responses to horror films. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02298


Mathai J. An acute anxiety state in an adolescent precipitated by viewing a horror movie. J Adolesc. 1983 Jun;6(2):197-200.


Nummenmaa, L. (2021). Psychology and neurobiology of horror movies. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/b8tgs


Winter, B. (2014). Horror movies and the cognitive ecology of primary metaphors. Metaphor and Symbol, 29(3), 151-170.