Watching Scary Movies: Why and What’s In It For You?

For some, Halloween means fright and terror, including watching scary movies. And watching scary movies means….what exactly? Besides the fact that it’s been labeled the “horror paradox.” As in, you think horror’s a good thing?! Really?!?

In order to study the why-people-watch-and-enjoy issue, it may be important to first look at what qualifies a movie to be scary. Cracked cites research results from Kings College, London, that actually puts the answer into a mathematical formula: (es + u + cs + t) squared + s + (tl + f) / 2 + (a + dr + fs) / n + sin x – 1.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • es is escalating music
  • u is the unknown
  • cs is chase scenes
  • t is the sense of being trapped
  • a is the character being alone
  • dr is how dark the film is
  • fs is the film setting
  • tl stands for true life
  • f stands for fantasy
  • n is for number of people
  • sin is blood and guts
  • s is shock
  • 1 stands for stereotype

At the top of the list for inducing scariness (via this formula)? The Shining.

Some Theories About Why People Enjoy These Movies

From BeliefNet:

  • Bessel A. Van Der Kolk, MD, and Matthew J. Friedman, MD: it’s about the release of endorphins. Friedman refers to “stress-induced analgesia.”
  • Mary R. Harvey, PhD: trauma survivors may experience “an almost hypnotic effect” and may want on some level to relive traumatic experiences via watching horror.

From WebMD:

  • James B. Weaver III, PhD, believes the disapproval of adults may make them more attractive to younger people.
  • Joanne Cantor, PhD: for adults, it may be about morbid curiosity.
  • Glenn Sparks, PhD: it’s a way to cope with actual fears.
  • Stephen King and others: “symbolic catharsis” (controls aggressive impulses).

From Babble:

Paul J. Patterson, PhD, offers several possible reasons:

  • A need for excitement, stimulation, or arousal.
  • A need to feel intense emotions or to be distracted.
  • To prove one can handle seeing the images and overcoming the fear.

And how about this for a simple explanation? Science Daily cites researchers Andrade and Cohen, who say that watchers simply enjoy feeling scared.

Want more theorizing? Click the link for a recent article by John P. Hess at Filmmaker IQ.

Some Effects of Watching Scary Movies

From WebMD:

  • Increased feelings of hostility.
  • Feeling haunted mentally by violent themes and images.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Fears of certain images, e.g., water or clowns or graphic violence.

But there’s also some good news. Much has been made of the 2012 U.K. study that found that watching horror burns calories, possibly the equivalent of a chocolate bar. Although this may not be enough to create new horror converts, the already-fans might now feel freer to have extra Halloween treats while freaking themselves right on out.

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