Why Do We Like Horror Movies?

Despite their relative popularity, horror movies tend to be polarized in the mainstream media. Some people absolutely love them, while others downright hate them. If you’ve read any of my articles from October 2020, you will know I fall into the former category. Horror movies have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I still enjoy them to this day. 

Though whenever I tell some people this, they look at me in confusion. They ask, “Why do you like horror so much? Doesn’t it scare you?” Whenever met with this question, I just shrug and answer with a simple, “I just do.” Negative attitudes toward horror movies don’t bother me, but it has made me wonder: why do some people enjoy horror movies, while others outright loathe them?

Now that I'm older, I wanted to research more about the genre and understand why people (including myself) love it so much. Being scared is an unpleasant feeling, so why do we enjoy it when it comes to horror movies? In order to do this, I did a bit of digging through horror film history, considered some of the knowledge I learned in my MCL 343: Global Horror class I took during the Fall 2020 semester, and also looked into the psychological effects that horror films leave on audiences. 

According to Karina Wilson, a horror writer who created the website “Horror Film History,” French filmmaker Georges Melies is credited with releasing the first ever horror film “Le Manor du Dable” (1896) (“The House of the Devil” in English). The four minute silent film tells the story of an encounter with the Devil, the intention of the tale being to humor audiences of its time. Due to the film’s supernatural themes and characters, however, it has nowadays been recognized as the first ever horror film.

Over the 124 years since “La Manor du Dable’s” release, horror movies have become a staple in film media. The genre has evolved considerably over the years, with different subgenres emerging as directors and writers aim to further push boundaries in order to unnerve audiences. According to Cherry Brigid in her scholarly book “Horror,” the seven subgenres (which she refers to as categories) of horror are Gothic, supernatural (occult and ghost films), psychological horror, monster movies, slashers, body horror and exploitation films. It is important to keep in mind, however, that these genres can blend with one another and thus create “hybrid genres.” With such a wide variety across the horror spectrum, there is a vast selection of scares awaiting potential viewers. 

Horror also shifts with each passing decade; as a result, genres that were popular at one point may not be so popular during another. For example, slasher films were particularly popular from 1978 to 1984 in a period that has since come to be known as the “Golden Age” of slasher films. In the mid 1980s, however, audiences became worn out by the genre and thus, it experienced a dip in popularity. A horror filmmaker’s job is to scare and shock their audience, and if viewers become used to a certain method of scares, the filmmaker will need to come up with something else. 

This is one of the reasons for horror’s longevity despite its polarized reputation. Horror filmmakers are always wanting to create something unique and never seen before to keep their audience entertained, so the constant pushing of boundaries rouses curiosity in horror fans, as well as those who aren’t too fond of the genre. 

Scare tactics aren’t the only thing horror filmmakers aim to change up, however. Due to its flexibility and adaptability as a genre, Cherry Brigid explains, horror is adept at its “encompassing of the cultural moment, giving scope for filmmakers to encode changing socio-cultural concerns with ease.” This is another reason for the genre’s longevity, and it is also a reason to why audiences love the genre so much.

For years, horror films have been used to critique political issues going on in society. Don Siegel’s 1956 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” plays onto Cold War anxieties of the time, Wes Craven’s 1991 “The People Under the Stairs” focuses on racial and class divisions of the Reagan Era, and “The Purge” series revolves around a system created by the wealthy to take advantage of marginalized communities. While these films possess their fair share of frights, the filmmaker’s intention is to inform audiences of the political issues occurring at the time in a consumable medium. 

Another reason why we like horror films is because of the adrenaline rush it gives us. If you’re someone who is a fan of extravagant activities such as bungee jumping, zip lining and riding roller coasters, there is a chance you may like the thrill of horror films. 

In an interview with Monica Jimenez for “Why Do We Like Horror Movies” on Tufts Now, Malcolm Tuvey, the director of the Film & Media Studies Program at Tufts University, says people enjoy viewing horror films because they can “feel certain strong feelings without suffering the consequences.” Most people watch horror films from the safety and comfort of their homes, and are aware that the possibility of the events happening onscreen are slim to none. While the content is terrifying, we know it cannot happen to us in real life, so we are able to enjoy it to the fullest. 

Lastly, people enjoy horror films because of the idea of “the beast within,” as Turvey calls it. For example, consider horror films that focus on serial killers. Audiences are aware that the crimes these individuals committed are especially heinous, but deep down, we want to know what exactly made them do it. This also makes one think of the air of mystery surrounding horror monsters.

When watching horror films, we want to know the monsters’ motives. Take Michael Myers from the popular “Halloween” series, for example. While audiences know almost nothing about the masked murderer, there have been numerous theories explaining his origin and motives. This mystery is what keeps viewers engaged and coming back for more. 

Horror movies aren’t for everyone, but there are reasons for why people enjoy them. These types of films have been popular not just in the United States, but around the world for years, and I do not see the genre losing steam any time soon. Personally, I am excited to see how the genre evolves in the coming decades. I feel as though horror has been experiencing a “renaissance” of sorts lately, and I cannot wait to see what else horror filmmakers have up their creative sleeves.