I just watched the new Halloween movie this past weekend. This year’s feature marks the 11th Halloween film since its original release 40 years ago. Why is it that this film, and the horror genre in general, are so popular, and what is the psychology behind why we like horror?
Fear is an innate emotion, meaning people are naturally born with it. This emotion is responsible for our survival. When we are afraid, our body naturally kicks in its fight-flight-or-freeze response in order to keep us safe. Each of these elements can be helpful in certain life-threatening situations. For example, when faced with a homicidal monster, like Michael Myers, it may be helpful to fight him (with appropriate training, like Laurie Strode). On the other hand, when facing the monsters from A Quiet Place, it may be helpful to use the freeze response, as noise can cause them to attack.
In addition, fear heightens our senses — sound, touch, smell, etc. This response is due to increased adrenaline in our system. The adrenaline response is essentially a superpower; it makes us run faster, fight harder, and be able to see and react to danger faster. In addition, adrenaline can allow us to experience stronger physical strength compared to times when we feel calm.
In certain situations, when the immediate or the apparent danger has passed, there may be a feeling of relief, followed by an endorphin release. Endorphins are the "feel good" chemicals we experience when we are excited, joyful, or thrilled. It is for this reason that thriller films can lead to us feeling jumpy with both suspense and excitement. Like a great rollercoaster ride, thrillers and horror films work on stimulating our emotions to make us vicariously scared and relieved for the on-screen characters.
Many of the people watching horror films identify with or root for the victims, such as the children in IT or Glen and Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street. By empathizing with the survivors of these films, we may feel scared for them when they face danger and excited for them when they succeed in defeating the monster. A victory over such a monster can produce a feeling of victory for us as well. Watching horror films with a group can allow for a strong social connection, almost a “we survived this together” feeling. Such bonding experiences can strengthen friendships and can help individuals feel closer to each other.
We may also be fascinated with the killer when watching horror films. There are many potential reasons for this. First, seeing a familiar recurring villain, such as Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, or Jason Voorhees, can remind us of the other exciting times we have seen these characters, leading to a feeling of nostalgia. Viewing and approaching something so villainous may feel exciting when done in such a fictionalized format. Many of the classic horror movie characters are monsters of some kind, not quite fully human. Watching these can allow us to explore frightening situations but from a safe distance and with the veil of fiction.
Sometimes, we might find ourselves actually identifying with the villain or wanting to see the villain succeed. There are many potential reasons for this. The most common one I have come across is that some people may feel emotionally restrained and unable to express their emotions and frustrations in real life, and thus may vicariously live out their aggressive tendencies through a violent film. Learning ways to feel and express our emotions, including frustration and anger, in a productive way, such as writing, mindfulness, games, cosplay, and therapy can help alleviate these feelings over time.
Overall, horror films, especially classics like Halloween, can teach us that monsters can be defeated if we choose to face them. They teach us that in bonding together rather than allowing our fears to divide us is the ultimate survival mechanism. And ultimately, they can teach us that no matter how horrific and grim a situation gets, there’s always hope.