Fear factor: Why do horror movies make you feel good?

The Ring
The Ring Image Credit: IMDB

Jeepers creepers: For the love of all things horror

By Bindu Rai, Entertainment Editor

I lived in a haunted house as a child. Perhaps that’s what started my love affair with horror movies.

Seeking out thrills is a part of human nature. This is why we leap out of planes at 12,000 feet, hop on board the world’s fastest roller-coaster or buy tickets to look down on the world from dizzying heights.

Fear is a great driver for entertainment and Hollywood has been banking on this since the first horror movies that were produced in the early 1900s. While Hollywood’s European counterparts had been dabbling in horror since the 1896 short film ‘Le Manoir du Diable’, it would be another 14 years before the US jumped on to the scare fest with a film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 Gothic novel, ‘Frankenstein’.

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An adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Image Credit: IMDB

According to Filmbuffonline, director J. Searle Dawley chose to downplay the horror aspects of the story and focus on its mystical and psychological elements; something that is being studied even today.

Last year, a research team at the University of Turku, Finland, studied why we people are drawn to horror as a form of entertainment. The researchers first established the 100 best and scariest horror movies of the past century and how they made people feel.

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Horror movies continue to find an audience despite factoring in the fear that many experience Image Credit: IMDB

Their findings indicated that 72 per cent of people saw at least one horror movie every six months, and the reasons for doing so, besides the feelings of fear and anxiety, was primarily that of excitement. “Watching horror movies was also an excuse to socialise, with many people preferring to watch horror movies with others than on their own,” the report stated.

The findings also stated that people found horror that was psychological in nature and based on real events the scariest, and were far more scared by things that were unseen or implied rather than what they could actually see.

Things that go bump in the night

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A still from The Grudge Image Credit: IMDB

My earliest memories of my old Mumbai home take me back to a giant pyjama party. Spending the summer holidays with the family during the monsoons, the evenings would always end with my father dragging all the mattresses into the living room and we would all sleep huddled together. If nature’s call needed to be answered at 2am, someone would always wake up to escort us to the bathroom.

To be fair, that’s how I thought everyone lived, that was until that first time when I realised something was amiss during one such groggy expedition in the dead of night. A strange sound from one of the adjoining rooms had snapped me awake. Who was that moving furniture around in the spare bedroom? Wait, was that the clink of bangles I heard?

Before a question could form on my lips, my grandmother visibly paled before my eyes and bundled me back to bed with the door of the living room firmly locked behind us.

Similar incidents followed that summer, with my mother always shushing me back to sleep until that fateful night when I woke up to find someone standing at the foot of my mattress.

My screams woke up the household and the holidays were cut short that year. We never returned to that home, learning a few months later that it had been put on the market. Stories about the place took on a life of its own, ranging from a woman facing a violent death in the house before our time, while others suggested the building was located on an old burial ground. Irrespective of the truth, the experience did leave a deep fascination for horror in my mind that only grew with age. Spooky stories, haunted places, scary movies, anything that triggered even a lick of fear were fair game.

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A scene from Paranormal Activity Image Credit: IMDB

My experience isn’t an anomaly. Studies show that people seek out such forms of entertainment largely to get a physical and emotional release that follows scary situations. According to a report by the US-based Concordia University, St Paul, which cites a report by psychologist Glenn D Walters, there are three primary factors that feed the attraction to horror entertainment: tension that is created in films by including elements of mystery, suspense, terror and shock; followed by the relevance that could include elements that viewers will identify with; and unrealism that alerts viewers that no matter how real it looks on screen, it is just fake.

Horror doesn’t scare Hollywood

Hollywood has made millions off this very psychology, spawning money-spinning horror movies year after year with franchises such as ‘Halloween’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’, ‘Scream’, ‘The Ring’, ‘Paranormal Activity’ and ‘The Conjuring’.

Whether or not you happen to be an audience, horror entertainment continues to find many takers.

Why do some people not like horror?

By Karishma Nandkeolyar, Assistant Online Editor

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Taissa Farmiga in ‘The Nun’. Image Credit: Supplied

It was 2am on a cool summer night and there was little light in the room. The shadows stood starkly in front of deeper darkness. It was the night after I had seen ‘The Nun’ and when I woke up, jostled awake by a gust of wind – or my husband’s restlessness (I’ve never been very sure) – I saw her standing there. I couldn’t move or scream or do any of the hundreds of little things I would have during daylight hours. I blinked rapidly as the image dissolved and I could finally rouse my clueless partner and have him explain that what I thought I had seen was just not possible. But my heart continued to thunder for a long, long time afterwards.

Let’s be clear: It’s not made me stop watching horror movies, quite the opposite. However, this rush of adrenalin may not be the happy pill for everyone. “While thrill-seeking in horror films is the main intention of film-maker and movie-goers, some people tend to internalise images from movies into dreams which affects sleep quality. They may have a hard time screening out unwanted stimuli. Negative emotions are stored in the amygdala, the brain part that stores memories. Negative emotions are resistant to being extinguished when compared to positive emotions,” explains Sneha John, Clinical Psychologist, Camali Clinic Child & Adult Mental Health.

Some people tend to internalise images from movies into dreams which affects sleep quality. They may have a hard time screening out unwanted stimuli.

– Sneha John, Clinical Psychologist, Camali Clinic Child & Adult Mental Health

How you feel post a scary movie – happy, relieved or frightened – is heighted because those feelings of excitement tie in to whatever you are exposed to next and you feel it more deeply and you remember it more clearly: a good meal with fun company will mean you associate happiness with the flick while an argument or frightening encounter would irk you more than at normal times. Glenn Sparks, Ph.D, a professor and associate head of the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, called this excitation transfer process, says psychcentral website.

Then there’s the chemical rush of a problem. Ethar Bashir, Clinical Psychologist, OpenMinds Center, says: “There’s an interesting reason why some people hate such movies – and oddly enough it’s got to do with the brain’s reward system. The neurological explanation for hating horror movies has to do with the release of dopamine and the brain’s reward system. The brain releases dopamine (the feel-good hormone) that rewards the response to the threat when watching horror movies. This links to our psychological arousal. The arousal threshold differs from person to person. For those that is much lower (aka easily aroused) will be reached much easier – and do not like horror movies. And vice versa. These types of people are easily overstimulated, causing the increased release of dopamine and can also lead to fear disorders like paranoia.”

Of course if you are an anxious person in general, these movies may hijack your emotional rollercoaster causing your feelings to escalate. “Those with sensitivity to anxiety may correlate what they see on screen to a similar real life situation. Watching horror images may lead to fearful thoughts and hence there is an urge among some people to avoid such experiences,” explains Dr John.

Dealing with realities of horror

By Jennifer Barretto, Assistant Editor Features

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A still from ‘Scream’ Image Credit: AP

Watching a horror movie or a slasher thriller can get your heart pumping and your mind racing — it’s what makes these genres of films so exhilarating to watch. It’s not just a new phenomenon either; horror films replete with jump scares, ghostly beings and more have been around for many years.

While not everyone enjoys being scared during a movie, there’s no denying that horror films can be loads of fun. But why? It might be the spike of adrenalin they give us, similar to when you’re on a roller coaster or skydiving.

“[When watching horror films], your heart pumps and the adrenalin flows, and your attention narrows in, even as you know you are at home or in the theatre and there is no real danger,” Sally Winston, licensed psychologist and executive director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland, was quoted as saying by Healthline.

Negative effect

However, just like how there are people would be traumatised by jumping out of a plane, horror films can have a negative effect on some people, causing anxiety and desensitisation to fear.

“Physiologically, our brains are not that skilled at distinguishing the difference between fantasy and reality,” Dr Allison Forti, assistant professor in the Department of Counselling at Wake Forest University, told Syfy.com. “So when we watch horror films our brains, even though we’re watching it for fun, could interpret it as a potential threat. It has the potential to activate a fear response or an anxiety response.”

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A scene from ‘The Bridge Curse’.

“If you watch a lot of horror movies, you can become desensitised to fear and anxiety,” she added. “The more you watch these movies you may have less of a fear or anxiety response. People are at risk of becoming desensitised in a negative way, losing their ability to connect with other people, losing their empathy, making it harder to feel compassion for other events in life.”

Other studies have shown that some people can have trouble sleeping right after watching scary movies and very rarely for prolonged periods of time; it can also sometimes cause eating problems. Some studies claim that children can be deeply effected by watching horror films, causing them to develop anxiety, have nightmares and lash out.

All in all, horror movies have the ability to give you a fright in that moment, and sometimes that lingers. However, there is no strong evidence to suggest that horror movies cause long-term damage in people who are otherwise mentally sound.

Unleashing the masters of horror

By Imran Malik, Assistant Editor

A still from Halloween
A still from Halloween Image Credit: IMDB

Nothing frightened me when I was 7. Not the floorboards that creaked in the middle of the night, the flickering light bulbs, those ominous looking shadows, not even the spider that lived in the corner.

They didn’t cause sleepless nights, but, you know what did? Michael Myers, the most influential slasher villain in movie history.

I was a little boy when I foolishly stayed up way past my 7pm bedtime to watch ‘Halloween’, made in 1978, about an unstoppable, masked serial killer who brutally stabs his victims with a large knife.

190516 John Carpenter
John Carpenter Image Credit: Reuters

It was a ground-breaking movie for its novel ‘Point of View’ shots and chillingly simplistic score. You feel a sinister and foreboding sense of evil slowly approaching and the director responsible for putting goose bumps on top of my goose bumps was the legendary, John Carpenter aka “The Horror Master.” Carpenter is a true horror visionary with countless hits to his name including ‘The Thing’, ‘The Fog’ and ‘Christine’.

In ‘Halloween’, we’re introduced to a pleasant suburban town that is full of cosy looking homes lined with pretty green trees, but this utopia is destroyed by the menacing figure of Myers who silently stalks his victims under the cover of darkness. Carpenter’s films rarely have a happy ending.

In fact, most are left on a knife-edge. At the end of ‘Halloween’, Myers grabs Laurie (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) by the throat and there doesn’t appear any hope for her, but then Dr. Loomis (the late Donald Pleasance) comes to the rescue and shoots the masked maniac several times. He falls off a balcony, slams onto the ground below and appears for all intents and purposes to be dead. But when Loomis looks down to check, Myers has vanished.

Psycho
Psycho Image Credit: IMDB

Now, this may all seem a little trite, but back in ’78 nobody had seen anything like it and there was pandemonium in every cinema at the climax of ‘Halloween’ which went on to become the most successful independent movie of all time, grossing millions. It was all thanks to Carpenter. But as good as he is, he cannot hold a candle to the greatest horror filmmaker there ever was — Alfred Hitchcock.

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Alfred Hitchcock (left) was the godfather of horror thrillers Image Credit: IMDB

Today, most directors rely on cheap jump scares and CGI special effects but Hitchcock used slow building tension and suspense to truly frighten viewers. He understood better than anyone that what is implied is far scarier than what is shown.

The shower scene in ‘Psycho’ (1960) is one of the most famous in the history of cinema. It’s a horrific act that features violence and nudity and yet it manages to actually show neither. It is your imagination playing tricks on you, and only the very best horror film makers in the business have been able to master this art.

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A still from Ouija Image Credit: IMDB

These days, it is James Wan who is shaping the horror genre with his ‘Saw’, ‘Insidious’ and ‘The Conjuring’ franchises and they’re all scary in their own twisted ways. Mike Flanagan is also one of the contemporaries with chilling films such as ‘Oculus’, ‘Hush’ and ‘Ouija: Origins of Evil.’

With the genre making a, ahem, killing at the box office, it seems we’ll be sleeping with the lights on for some time yet.