is horror attractive?: A Review of the Literature
Horror is surrounded
by an air of enticement that can draw people in, time and again, to experience
fear. The question as to why people are attracted to horror films has been a popular
research topic for years. This literature review plans to look at the three
causes contributing towards horror’s appeal, discuss theories that could explain
our attraction to horror, and its appeal to people by providing a safe environment.
After evaluating the causes, theories and reasons for its appeal, this review
hopes to better understand and determine why people are attracted to horror
The allure of horror
The three causes
contributing to the allure of horror mentioned by Psychologist Dr. Glenn D.
Walters in 2004 are tension, relevance and unrealism. Horror movies with all
three causes have the greatest appeal. Tension, the first contributing cause, is
created by skills and cutting-edge techniques used in filmmaking to allow
mystery, terror, suspense, gore and shock to occur.
which would be the second contributing cause, requires movies to be relevant in
at least one of four ways in order to be seen. The four different categories of
relevance are universal, cultural, subgroup and personal. Universal and
widespread fears such as death have to be captured to attain universal
relevance. Societal issues must be raised for cultural-relevant movies, while
subgroup-relevant movies are required to target specific groups such as youths to
be subgroup relevant. Finally, movies must be able to establish a personal connection
with the audience, such as being able to identify with the protagonist to achieve
the third cause, is needed for people to be able to keep their eyes on the
screen amid the gory and scary scenes as they would know to a certain extent
that what they are watching is not real. A study on disgust was conducted in
1994 by Haidt, McCauley and Rozin. Students were shown real-life horror
documentaries and a huge majority were profoundly disturbed by the graphic
images in it, with most of them stopping the documentaries before they ended. However,
the same students would have paid to see a horror movie in theatres with scenes
gorier than the images in the documentary. As to why this was so, McCauley
(1998) found that the fictional nature of horror movies allowed those who
viewed it to maintain a psychological distance between both the movie and its audience.
Hence, although scenes in the horror movie were far more horrific than the
real-life documentaries’, students were not as disturbed as the movie was
fictional. Therefore, unrealism is detrimental as people are only able to enjoy
horror if it is fictitious.
Theories on our attraction to horror
theory by Aristotle in his book titled The Poetics of Aristotle, from 384-322
B.C.E. theorized that horror movies attracted people as they could purge
negative pent-up feelings such as aggression through viewing violent scenes,
but research by Albert Bandura in 2004 provided findings to prove Aristotle’s
theory otherwise. Participants grew resistant to the violence from shows over
time and became less empathetic. This lack of empathy led to increased
aggression, proving that watching violent shows ultimately led to an increase
in aggressive behavior and did not purge negative emotions. However, a new
concept on Catharsis, The Excitation Transfer Theory by Dr. Dolf Zillmann in
1978 posits that positive feelings are magnified by the negative feelings felt
from horror movies where the human triumphs in the end. But not every horror
movie ends well, thus this theory does not apply to all horror movies. Hence
this theory, like Catharsis, is also unable to fully explain our attraction to
theory attempting to explain our attraction to horror would be the Sensation Seeking
theory by Marvin Zuckerman in 1979. High scorers on the sensation seeking scale
pursued thrill in their endeavors, such as riding rollercoasters and watching
horror movies, hence attracting people to horror movies. However, there were other
factors attributing to attraction and despite the correlation found regarding
the theory, it was insignificant as the theory was unable to cover all the
factors on our attraction to horror.
theory that could explain our attraction to horror would be the Gender Socialization
theory by Zillmann, Weaver, Mundorf and Aust in 1986, otherwise known as the ‘Snuggle
theory’. It referred to the commodification of gender roles, and horror films
were regarded as a rite of passage. Along with Norbert Mundorf and others in
the late 1980s, Dolf Zillmann conducted an experiment where students of
opposite genders were to watch a horror clip together in twos and found that females
enjoyed the movie more when their male counterparts seemed unfazed. Males however,
enjoyed the movie almost twice as much when the females were scared. Additionally,
females who witnessed bravery from initially unattractive males amidst the
movie regarded them more attractively afterwards. Hence this could explain
human attraction to horror as it allows males to impress their female counterparts
through fulfilling culturally-prescribed gender roles. However, this theory fails
to cover our attraction to horror after adolescence and why some people watch
horror movies alone.
Horror provides a safe environment
place where people can experience fear without being in any real danger would
be within the realms of fictitious horror. The contemporary theory of dreaming
put forth by Ernest Hartmann in 2010 states that images in one’s dreams are not
entirely connected randomly, but are instead led by the emotions an individual
is sorting through, such as fear. Hence watching a horror film could be akin to
being in a dream-like state, making horror films a safe place for one to practice
survival skills. However, studies on the theory should be furthered to find out
if dreams allow individuals to overcome phobias as they also evoke fear, which
makes the scenario of facing a phobia exact to being in a dream-like state.
people to deal with their fears in a safe environment is another appealing
aspect of horror movies. Horror movies also teach adolescents to manage terror by
either suppressing emotions of fear and anxiety or depending on others for
protection. By doing so, the individual learns to deal with his or her
respective environment by adopting individualistic coping mechanisms that could
prove to be useful in dealing with more than just fictitious horror.
causes, theories and concepts explaining why people are attracted to horror
films, there is still not a single concept or theory able to fully explain our
attraction to horror. There are correlations in studies like the sensation
seeking scale and one’s attraction to horror, but more in-depth research should
be conducted as there are still many areas of research left uncovered, like the
answer to how the Excitation Transfer theory can be applied to movies without
happy endings, the numerous other factors attributing to horror’s allure, why
horror’s appeal dwindles after adolescence and why some people choose to watch
horror movies alone. In conclusion, research evidence from the causes, theories
and concepts shared contribute to horror’s appeal, but additional research should
be conducted to ultimately create an impeccable theory able to fully explain
why people are attracted to horror.
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Rozin, P., Haidt, J., & McCauley, C. R. (2008).
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