Why Do We Enjoy Horror Movies?

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Horror is one of the most enduringly popular film genres. They routinely top the box office and many of their characters have become part of the cultural zeitgeist, from Norman Bates in Psycho to Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street to Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

Yet, while many people willingly buy tickets to the latest horror movie release, in our daily lives we try to avoid anything that frightens us. So why would we pay to watch a movie that induces fear and terror?

Many psychologists have sought to answer this question, and this article will explore the various explanations they've investigated, including the ability to master threats through horror films and how they help us grapple with the dark side of humanity.

Of course, not everyone likes horror films, so we'll also discuss the individual differences that can account for who gravitates to horror films and who doesn't. Finally, we'll wrap up with a look at the therapeutic potential of consuming horror.

Reasons Why People Love Horror Movies

No single explanation provided by scholars accounts for every reason people enjoy watching horror movies. That's because when people seek out a horror film, they are likely doing so for multiple reasons and to satisfy multiple gratifications. Plus, some people may be motivated to watch horror for one reason but not another.

Below are among the most well-established explanations psychologists have offered to explain why people enjoy watching horror movies.

Vicarious Experiences and Threat Mastery

In our everyday lives, we don't encounter scary situations all that often, but if we do encounter something threatening or dangerous, it attracts our attention.

Horror scholar Mathias Clasen suggests this tendency can be traced back to the constant danger our ancient ancestors experienced in the environments where they lived. For ancient humans, constant vigilance was required in order to avoid becoming the prey of a larger or more deadly animal.

These long-ago experiences have granted people a highly responsive, albeit mostly unconscious, threat detection system. Because horror movies do such a good job at simulating threatening situations, this means our emotional responses to them are similar to those we'd experience if we encountered a real-life threat.

Of course, because we don't encounter real-life threats as often as ancient humans, going to horror films can be a novel experience that lets us put our innate threat detection system to use. This not only makes horror movies more attention-grabbing for audiences, but it also allows them to experience things like the post-apocalypse, alien invasions, and the threat of an attacker in a safe environment.

As a result, horror movies are a risk-free way to vicariously experience threats and rehearse one's responses to those threats.

Plus, after people get through a horror movie unscathed, they may feel a sense of accomplishment and mastery over the threat they've experienced, which then leads them to feel more confident in their ability to handle other anxiety-provoking situations.

Excitation Transfer Theory

One of the earliest psychological theories to explain people's enjoyment of horror movies is Dolf Zillmann's excitation transfer theory. The theory proposes that horror media stimulates elevated levels of physiological arousal because of the fear they induce; when the media concludes, that arousal then intensifies viewers' feelings of relief and enjoyment, leading to a euphoric high.

Studies have backed up this theory, at least for male viewers. For example, one study found that the more distress male participants reported and the more arousal they experienced while watching a horror film, the greater their delight after finishing the film.

Exploring the Dark Side of Humanity

Another study found that our enjoyment of horror movies can be explained by the fact that they satisfy our curiosity about the dark side of humanity.

Society ensures that most of us rarely encounter humanity's most depraved or scary monsters, and we repress our darker sides in order to fit in.

Horror movies let us vicariously explore the nature of evil, both in others and in ourselves, and grapple with the darkest parts of humanity in a safe environment.

Who Likes Horror Movies?

Not everyone enjoys horror movies. In fact, there are many who stay away from the genre as much as possible.

Psychology has provided some insight into the individual differences that make someone more likely to enjoy horror films.

People Who Seek Out Sensations

Numerous studies have demonstrated that those high in the trait of sensation seeking tend to enjoy horror.

Sensation seeking is the tendency to look for novel, risky, or intense experiences. People who are high in sensation seeking tend to experience positive emotions when they have intensely stimulating experiences, even if those experiences are negative.

As a result, high sensation seekers are wired to enjoy the stimulating experience of horror films in a way people low in this trait are not.

People With Lower Empathy Levels

People lower in the trait of empathy also tend to enjoy horror movies more because they are less impacted by the suffering that is depicted onscreen.

That doesn't mean people higher in empathy don't enjoy anything about horror movies, however. While they may shy away from horror films due to the pain and suffering they portray, if they do consume horror films, they enjoy the danger and excitement of the stories, as well as horror films that have happy endings.

People Belonging to the Male Sex

More than any other individual difference, sex is most predictive of enjoyment of horror films, with males tending to enjoy scary and violent movies far more than females.

This difference can be at least partially explained by the fact that females tend to experience greater fear and anxiety than males.

In addition, females tend to be higher than males in the trait of disgust sensitivity, which could lead them to dislike horror movies that depict blood and gore.

Could Watching Horror Movies Be Therapeutic?

There's a growing body of research that suggests horror movies could be used in clinical settings to help people with anxiety or trauma.

For instance, a recent study showed that people who watched horror movies were less psychologically distressed by the COVID-19 pandemic and those who were fans of the apocalyptic subgenre of horror felt more prepared for additional waves of the pandemic.

This indicates that people who consume horror develop the ability to cope with stressful and anxiety-provoking situations.

If this is the case, watching horror movies and other media could be used by mental health professionals to help anxious patients work on developing emotional and behavioral strategies to cope with their fears, which could ultimately make them more resilient in general.

While people who don't enjoy horror won't find this beneficial, for those who like the genre, studies indicate watching horror movies would be akin to exposure therapy. There is not yet direct evidence for this possibility, but researchers are starting to investigate the therapeutic potential of horror movies.

12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cynthia Vinney, PhD
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.