Why do we watch scary movies?

Horror films attract us, but moviegoers should recognize limits, consequences

Published: Thursday, Oct. 25 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

Even a seemingly innocuous movie such as Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie" could be frightening to children.

Disney, Disney Enterprises Inc.

It's dark. Your heart races and your hands begin to sweat. A door creaks open and you clutch tightly to your companion in hopes that together you can stave off the unnamed foe waiting on the other side.

The theater lights come up and you walk out hand-in-hand with your date, unscathed but more wary of the dark alley near your car than you were one movie ago.

"A movie is just like any experience. It may or may not have any positive effect at all or any effect at all," said Norman Holland, film critic and literature expert who has studied the correlation between the mind and the arts.

"Notice, though, that during the movie, if you're really into the movie, you're not aware that you're watching a movie. You're having an experience."

In our hedonistic American culture of avoiding pain and seeking out pleasure, it seems counter-intuitive to seek out something that triggers such strong negative emotions.

Horror movies offer an escape different than few other forms of recreation. They allow the viewer a thrilling experience without placing them in danger and are sometimes viewed as a form of catharsis. But there are potentially negative effects, as well, such as the brain's ability to internalize long-term fears. It's therefore important to tread carefully and know your limits before sitting down to watch something scary, especially when it comes to the more susceptible minds of children.

"I wouldn't like to promote the idea that one reason why (scary movies) are popular is they're good for mental health and they help you get over your issues. They don't," said JoAnn Cantor, founder of Your Mind on Media consulting firm, outreach director for the Center for Communication Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and professor of 26 years.

Why we like them

In his essay "Why We Crave Horror Movies," Stephen King offered an explanation to this phenomenon: We like to prove to ourselves that we can handle it, and it brings us out of the gray areas of adulthood to the black and whites of childhood.

"This invitation to lapse into simplicity, irrationality and even outright madness is extended so rarely," writes King, whose books have been adapted into several successful horror films. "We are told we may allow our emotions a free rein … or no rein at all."

He adds that horror movies offer an emotional release for the not-so-socially-acceptable emotions we all feel on occasion.

"If we share a brotherhood of man, then we also share an insanity of man," he writes. "None of which is intended as a defense of either the sick joke or insanity but merely as an explanation of why the best horror films, like the best fairy tales, manage to be reactionary, anarchistic and revolutionary all at the same time."

In addition to offering a simplistic view of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, horror movies also can be a form of play, according to Holland. The scary movie simulates a frightening situation, but it's one in which the viewer walks out victor.

"We are drawn to things that stimulate our emotions and particularly stimulate them without any adverse consequences to us," he said.

Such films, however, tend to draw a niche audience, which may be why the genre tends to gross far less than more mainstream genres.

The top-grossing movies under the "horror" genre, as classified by BoxOfficeMojo.com, are "The Sixth Sense" (PG-13) at $293,501,675, "The Exorcist" (R) at $232,906,145 and "What Lies Beneath" (PG-13) at $155,464,351. In contrast, the top three grossing movies of all time are "Avatar" (PG-13) at $760,507,625, "Titanic" (PG-13) at $658,672,302 and "The Avengers" (PG-13) at $623,357,910.

It may seem unwise to continue creating such movies given the low returns, until taking into consideration the relatively low cost of creating a horror movie.

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