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Why Do People Love Horror Films?

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Fifty-five horror films were produced last year and 68 this year in Europe and US alone. Carnivores is the most popular film on IMDb at the moment, and What Lies Beneath is the highest US grossing ($155 million). From 1930 to 2006, 874 horror films were made worldwide. All of the data, therefore, suggests that people really like horror films.

This is despite the fact that they are gory, upsetting and terrifying, if they are well made, and simply vomit-inducing, if they are low quality. Why is it that horror films are so popular in the 13 to 30 age range, even though they are not positive and or life-affirming in the slightest? Why do people want to subject themselves to this gloom?

There are various answers to that question but I think most of the answers are linked to the way we live today. In the developed world, people live in such safe and cushioned environments, that a lot of them are very unlikely to experience strong emotions like fear or emotional pain in their daily lives. However, people are evolutionary programmed to deal with scary stimuli, such as predators, all the time. To create an outlet for the animalistic side of human beings, horror films were created.

To unwrap this claim further, we can examine different reasons people give for liking horror films and see how they might be linked to evolutionary determinants.

Many of my friends claim that they enjoy films in the horror genre because they like getting an adrenaline rush. Adrenaline is produced when there is a dangerous stimuli that requires immediate reaction such as a predator or a car, but can also be produced in smaller doses, such as in the safety of the cinema.

After an adrenaline rush people can feel happy and relaxed, so being in a cinema and experiencing a scary movie is like simulating dealing with a real life threat in fake circumstances and also then simulating the reward felt after that experience. 

Another reason some people enjoy horror films, especially ones that are made without any mastery but with a huge shock factor based on dread-inducing music and gore, is that the plot is so unbelievable and the props are so cheap and obviously fake, that the film becomes funny.

Again, this simulates a real life threat but reframes is it as funny, which in a sense, could be therapeutic.

It could be therapeutic because it could suggest to a viewer, that some of our fears are not as real as we imagine them to be, or that threats in real life are not always as hard to deal with as we first thought.  It makes us desensitised to scary things in our reality, teaches people to be less scared. As people learn to be scared, fake horror films can teach them to become less scared of certain objects. 

People also like going to the cinema to watch a horror film for the societal factor. It’s exciting and fun to watch and share the experience with friends. Living through any threat, even an imaginary one is likely to bond the group together.

Also, in terms of being popular with a group, the fact that someone has seen a popular horror film provides them with a topic to shares with others. Group experiences and behaviours are the basics of survival, from an evolutionary perspective. If someone learnt to share and enjoy living with others, they were likely to gather more food and to be more fulfilled socially.

Lastly, another reason why certain horror film connoisseurs enjoy horror films is because they like well-made films in general. The fact that the visuals and the plot might be beautifully crafted is not useful from an evolutionary standpoint although one might argue that the ability to appreciate different forms of art, including horror films could be good for our well-being, as it provides a change from the routine and excites us emotionally. 

It would seem, although horror films are gory and weird and gross and vomit-inducing and much more, people love horror films for a lot of different reasons. Some of these, such as social ones or desensitisation to the real life horrors are great reasons for Hollywood to continue making horrors and for us to continue watching them. However, as young teenagers will often watch horror films that are marketed for people above their age range, one has to wonder whether this desensitisation to violence from such a young age will lead to increased violence and related delinquency of the adults that these children will soon become?


Image credit: Freepik

Dr Elizabeth Kaplunov is a chartered psychologist who evaluates projects about health technology for disabled and vulnerable people. 


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