Skip to main content

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
(Photo: charamelody/Flickr)

(Photo: charamelody/Flickr)

Earlier this year, the horror movie genre was pronounced dead. None of the six horror films released before September managed to break $20 million on opening weekend at the box office, and none ended up earning over $32 million total domestically. The ruling was dramatic and preemptive, of course—full of the same kind of foolishness that makes it possible to say things like “Nobody wants to see movies with women in them”—but still, horror filmmakers and fans alike were worried. It’s doubtful anyone truly believed the genre wouldn’t eventually bounce back, but peak scary movie season comes just once a year.

And then there was Annabelle, the spinoff from last year’s The Conjuring. Critics thought it might break 2014’s horror slump, but the film far exceeded those expectations: It earned $37 million on opening weekend, a higher draw than any horror movie in years, and one of the largest openings for a horror movie ever.

Its financial success does not mean, however, that Annabelle is well-liked. The movie has a dismal three-percent critic rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. At Grantland, Wesley Morris wrote that Annabelle is emblematic of the genre’s recent tendency toward the “passive-aggressive and hilariously, lazily vague.” Audience reviews have been somewhat more generous (on Rotten Tomatoes, 45-percent of viewers said they liked it), but it seems unlikely the movie has a future as even a cult classic. I have a small group of trusty horror fans whom I can consult when I want to know if any of the genre’s new releases are worth a $20 trip to the theater, and the answer for Annabelle has been a resounding “Nah.”

To sit calmly in a theater next to someone who is hands-in-front-of-her-eyes terrified is perhaps the most enjoyable, and least harmful, form of schadenfreude there is.

So why did so many people pay to go see it? It had a strong social media presence, for one thing, and for another, people love a freaky doll. But there’s a deeper motive that likely propelled Annabelle beyond its merits: People who wanted to be terrified at some point this year just got tired of waiting. As movie analyst Phil Contrino told the Washington Post, “As a genre, it’s never completely dead, because people always want to be scared.”

Well, some people.

WHAT KIND OF PSYCHOPATH voluntarily submits herself to terror? This is one of many perennial, small-but-polarizing battles that happen each Halloween (pro- and anti-candy corn; people who refuse to wear costumes to costume parties; etc.): those who want to spend October scaring themselves, and those who can’t imagine anything they’d like to do less.

Though not particularly uncommon, the pursuit of fear is intriguing on a psychological level, particularly to those who don’t share it. As such, it has often been the subject of scientific study. A 2005 meta-analysis by Cynthia A. Hoffner and Kenneth J. Levine examined 35 different journal articles that studied the relationship between viewer enjoyment and frightening movies, and they found four common theories that aim to explain the freakish brains that made Paranormal Activity an international hit.

First, and perhaps most famously, Zillman’s (1980, 1996) excitation transfer paradigm states that viewers who experience “fearful apprehension about deplorable events that threaten liked protagonists” also then experience heightened enjoyment when those threats are satisfyingly resolved. More controversially, the same theory holds that horror movies that end “unhappily” (which seems like ... most of them) should then produce heightened dysphoria. How, then, to explain the many people who enjoy horror movies that end in terrible, violent, and scary ways?

A second hypothesis involves individual empathy—specifically, and somewhat troublingly, that people with less of it like horror films more. Tamborini (1996) argued that viewers with high levels of empathy should dislike horror films because they react negatively to the suffering of others. But many horror fans, myself included, bristle at this suggestion: I cannot stand watching viral clips of people being embarrassed on local TV, and I don’t enjoy watching people fall. Fantastical horror, it turns out, is different; when heavily violent and torture-based movies were eliminated from these studies, the inverse correlation between empathy and enjoyment dropped.

Another, perhaps stronger variant of this hypothesis relies on an “in someone else’s shoes” definition of empathy, wherein enjoyment of horror films is contingent upon one’s dissociation from the threats present in those films: If you personally aren’t worried about, say, a demonic doll taking control of your home’s inanimate objects, you can more easily enjoy watching it happen to someone else.

Other studies claimed that those who like horror films tend to have three commonly shared traits: sensation-seeking, above-average aggression, and maleness. For the latter two there are important caveats: Aggressive people may seek horror films out, but that does not indicate a causal relationship in either direction. Also, like many of these traits, aggression is self-reported, and human beings are notoriously bad at describing themselves accurately. As for the supposed gender divide: There is some suspicion that more men might say they like scary movies than really do.

I have noticed, too, that male friends who aren’t fans of horror movies phrase their stance as dispassionate preference rather than emotional pattern. “I’m not scared of them,” they’ll say, insistently. “I just don’t like them.”

THIS IS ALL VERY well and good, but none of it quite gets at that distinct feeling of triumphant survival a good scary movie can make you feel when it’s over. It’s like a roller coaster, with more ghosts: Doing it is great, but having done it is even better. It’s also an easy claim to bragging rights: You can say you got through something a lot of people won’t even try to get through, and you didn’t even have to be in any real danger.

And finally, another very good reason to go see Annabelle, or Ouija, or whatever the next one will be, even if they’re not all that good: To sit calmly in a theater next to someone who is hands-in-front-of-her-eyes terrified is perhaps the most enjoyable, and least harmful, form of schadenfreude there is.