Why do we watch scary movies?

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

Published: Saturday, Oct. 3 2015 9:50 p.m. MDT

Even a seemingly innocuous movie such as Tim Burton's 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."

 Haley Joel Osment stars as Cole Sear in M. Night Shyamalan's 1999 breakout hit Haley Joel Osment stars as Cole Sear in M. Night Shyamalan's 1999 breakout hit "The Sixth Sense." (Disney Enterprises Inc., Deseret News archives, disney enterprises inc.)

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.

Richard Dreyfuss as Matt Hooper and Robert Shaw as Quint in Richard Dreyfuss as Matt Hooper and Robert Shaw as Quint in "Jaws." (Disney Enterprises Inc., Deseret News archives, disney enterprises inc.)

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.

Negative effects

Despite their predictably Victorian approach to killing off the characters with low moral values and the at-times-formulaic scripts, gaping plot holes, cheap scare tactics involving a musical climax and false alarms, horror movies still manage to effectively scare people. However, the effects can be long lasting.

After poring over thousands of responses from people regarding horror movies and their resultant fears, Cantor found that people internalize a scary moment and suffer effects for years afterward.

"Even though they know they're being irrational, they're just freaked out," Cantor said. "If you look at how the body handles fear, if you're really, really, really freaked out and frightened, your body stores that memory."

As a result, there are adults who are fearful while walking through the woods after watching "Blair Witch Project" or who cannot swim, even in swimming pools or lakes, after watching "Jaws."

Cantor said the ideal would be to find the right level of fear that is just enough to grab attention but leaves the viewer with a feeling of competence and mastery.

However, this is not often the case, she said, and these movies often leave people feeling less competent and assured than before. Fear originally functioned as means to keep people alive, according to Cantor. The "fight or flight" reaction embedded in the amygdala, located inside the temporal lobe in the brain, stores fearful encounters so the body is ready to fight back when approached with something threatening. Fear is also stored in the higher-functioning and logical prefrontal cortex. However, the brain often cannot tell the difference between fiction and reality and the amygdala triggers and often overrules the prefrontal cortex when presented with a similar situation.

"This lizard brain is not going to listen to you saying it's not real. If we didn't have a fear mechanism, we wouldn't be alive today," Cantor said. "Our brains were not designed with unreality in mind."

Movies like "Jaws" that are so intense can get to people more than, say, a news report on someone who was killed by a shark in Florida, mainly because the viewer sees the action firsthand.

"You witness it and you hear it and you empathize right there along," Cantor said.

Scary movie experiences can be stored similarly to dangerous real-life situations, Cantor said, even if one is in a situation that is logically safe.

"Our brains, even though at one level we know we're watching a movie, on the deeper lizard level we store it," she said. "Even though you know you're safe, your heart is going, thump, thump, thump."

Cantor suggests viewers know their limits before viewing a horror movie.

Scary movies and kids

Children are especially susceptible, Cantor said, because they do not yet know the difference between fiction and reality.

"There's nothing like a good night's sleep for a kid. It's like the holy grail," Cantor said. "It's really hard to undo the scared for a little kid."

Even a seemingly innocuous movie such as Tim Burton's recent release "Frankenweenie," a remake of his 1984 short film, could be frightening to children.

The film avoids showing purely scary moments. For example, the scene of Victor Frankenstein digging up his dead dog was shown from a distance, and only the sound of screeching tires and resultant thud indicated that Sparky the dog had been hit by a car.

The film was also laced with humorous bits to offset the dark tone of the movie.

But a young enough child may still be frightened. Whether it's a cartoon or the Count on Sesame Street, children internalize anything that appears to be scary, Cantor said. She suggests parents watch a movie before showing it to their children, regardless of how benign the advertising portrays the film.

"Entertainment should be for fun and should leave you in a better place than when you started," she said.

email: wevans@desnews.com

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