horror01

Halloween Psychology: Why People Like Scary Movies

dracula_1931_poster_01Every year on Halloween, my dad would pick out a classic monster movie, and we would watch it as a family. We hit the classics—Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, and more. These old movies, though, are just some examples of the huge genre that is horror and fright.

In literature, the gothic horror genre emerged in the late 1700s, producing now-classic works by Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker.[1]  For a nice reference on the history of the horror genre, check out this helpful webpage by Filmmaker IQ. Certainly, though, scary stories of ghosts and ghouls predate these literary works, and the horror genre is alive and well today. Between the success of Walking Dead and recent films like Paranormal Activity, it raises the question: why do we like to be scared?

To get some sense of an answer, let’s ask a slightly different question: who likes to be scared? Some research in the psychology of scary movies has started to examine possible answers, identifying the kinds of people who like horror films and those who aren’t such ardent fans.[2]  Unless otherwise noted, the research in this article comes from a 2005 meta-analysis published in Media Psychology.

#1 – Men like scary movies more than women

One pretty basic finding in this research is that men like scary movies more than women, on average. Connecting these findings with contemporary theories of gender in psychology, some have suggested this gender difference may have its origins in a socialization process.

A lot of gender differences in psychology come down to the expectations that society communicates to boys and girls. Just one example of this is that boys learn that they should avoid expressing emotions (like fear and distress) and instead keep those feelings hidden. Girls, on the other hand, learn that they’re allowed (or even encouraged) express those emotions.

When it comes to scary movies, boys might be able to use those films as a chance to prove their masculinity. If they can show that they’re able to remain calm and collected in the face of a frightening experience, they show that they’re living up to society’s expectations.

#2 – People who experience more fear during these movies like them more

frankenstein-posterIt also seems that it’s the experience of fear that people like about scary movies. Correlational evidence has shown that the more people feel negative emotions like fear and distress while watching horror films, the more they like the genre as a whole. Part of the attraction to scary movies is being able to feel the thrill of a frightening experience and perceive it as a positive. Thus, the more thrill a person feels (given that he or she can see it as a fun experience), the more he or she should like the movie.

Interestingly, this correlation is stronger for men than for women. That fact makes it even more clear that men’s preference for horror films is driven by the thrill of being able to feel the fear and perceive it as a positive. Women, however, are less able to re-experience the negative emotions as a positive experience, on average, so they end up less interested in the genre itself.

#3 – People with less empathy like horror films

According to most psychological approaches, empathy involves taking the perspective of another person and taking on their feelings and experience as your own. In horror films, the audience witnesses countless distressing events happening to the main characters. The more empathy the audience has, the more personally distressing those events are because they can more easily feel what the characters are likely to feel. In addition, having more empathy for the characters makes it harder to perceive “fear” and “distress” as something that’s fun.

Therefore, the more empathy a person has, the harder it is to enjoy horror films. By contrast, the less empathy a person has, the easier it is to have fun while watching a scary movie.

#4 – “Sensation Seekers” like horror films

There are some people who really like new experiences, and they’ll take a lot of risks in order to have more thrilling and intense experiences.[3]  Psychologists identify sensation seekers using a standard personality questionnaire approach. People who go skydiving or engage in high-stakes gambling, for example, are sensation seekers.

According to the research, sensation seekers see more horror films than people who aren’t sensation seekers. In fact, the more a person is “sensation seeking,” the more he or she likes the horror film genre.

#5 – Scary movies are most enjoyed by young adults

frankjuly08You might think that interest in scary movies changes with age. On average, though, there is no correlation between age and enjoyment of these movies. But maybe the relationship isn’t a straight line. Instead, some have proposes two trajectories: increasing enjoyment from childhood to adolescence and decreasing enjoyment after adolescence. That’s pretty much what the data show.

First, some evidence shows that kids aren’t as able to find enjoyment in frightening experiences as adolescents. It takes some learning and development to cope with negative experiences. As a result, enjoyment of scary movies tends to increase with age, among children.

But does interest in horror films decline with age? Existing data seem to suggest that this is the case; among adults, younger people enjoy horror films more than older people.

A Frightening Conclusion*

*Not actually that frightening.

Across these trends we can see that we like scary movies when we get to feel scared and know that everything is okay. Anything that keeps someone from feeling the fear to begin with and then translating that fear into positivity reduces the enjoyment that can come from scary movies. For example, empathy makes it harder to feel good about feeling bad, and as a result, makes it harder to enjoy a scary movie.

So this Halloween, scroll through the scary movies on Netflix and enjoy the fright…especially if you’re a sensation seeking, low empathic adolescent male.

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This article is part of 3-post series, “Halloween Psychology,” leading up to Halloween 2015 where we celebrate influential Halloween-related research in Social Psychology’s past.

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.   For a nice reference on the history of the horror genre, check out this helpful webpage by Filmmaker IQ.
2.   Unless otherwise noted, the research in this article comes from a 2005 meta-analysis published in Media Psychology.
3.   Psychologists identify sensation seekers using a standard personality questionnaire approach.

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