Why Do We Watch Scary Movies?

The Exorcist

I am not a big fan of horror movies. The Exorcist, which turned 40 this year, scared the Andersen’s pea soup (the actual brand used in that iconic projectile-vomiting scene) out of me when I was a little girl. Each time I approached my room, I was sure I would find Linda Blair on my bed, head spinning around. Ironically, when I do watch a scary movie, I tend to go for one about exorcism. Of all the horror ghouls, zombies frighten me the most; even the comedy Shaun of the Dead was too much for me. (Okay, even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video gave me chills.) And I will not watch a home-invasion movie, especially if the bad guys are in masks. One relatively recent film I found deliciously chilling was The Fourth Kind, about alien abduction. I wish I had the courage to see it again (although most viewers would prefer to have their 98 minutes back).

Many filmgoers regularly put themselves in the position to be shocked by the gore, violence, and supernatural activity characteristic of the horror genre. (Of course, some don’t, and they are less likely to sleep with a night light.) Here are some of the more popular theories as to why horror movies appeal to us:

  1. They demystify the unknown.
  2. They distract us from our everyday concerns.
  3. They give us the opportunity to prove that we can master something threatening.
  4. They have fantastic visual effects.
  5. They induce catharsis.
  6. They allow us to face our greatest fear, the knowledge that we are all doomed.
  7. They provide an adrenaline rush in a safe environment.
  8. They satisfy our desire to feel intense emotions.
  9. They show us things we don’t see in our daily lives.
  10. They take us on a psychological ride.

I am intrigued by two additional theories, which are based on diametrically opposed views of our normal mental state (sane or crazy):

  • Horror movies reaffirm that we are healthy and well-adjusted.
  • We are all mentally ill, and horror movies appease our insanity, keeping it in check.

I tend to favor the second explanation, especially considering its source: horror master Stephen King. I figure he should know.

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