Why we watch horror movies

Anders Bergstrom, Andre Loiselle, Carleton University, Laurier University, horror, gothic, horror films, HalloweenFor the horror averse, the fact that people choose to subject themselves to (and even pay for!) roughly 120 minutes of on-screen terror over and over again is truly mind-boggling.

Yet, the popularity of horror movies persists, reaching a fever pitch once a year on Halloween.

“It’s the one time each year when my research attracts attention,” jokes Carleton University professor Andre Loiselle, who studies Canadian and Quebecois cinema, the horror film, and theatricality on screen. He recently published The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul.

Beyond the enjoyment of a thrill and adrenaline rush in a safe, controlled environment, Loiselle points to various benefits of horror movies from the intellectual to the emotional, stating the films become fairy tales for adults.

“When it comes to fairy tales—and I mean the grim, non-Disneyfied fairy tales—situations are presented in ways where there are significant threats,” he says. “The child recognizes the world can be dangerous, but is always reassured things can be worked out if they’re clever and use their senses. The same applies to horror movies for adults.”

In this sense, scary movies actually help combat fear and anxiety. It becomes reassuring and empowering to know that, although there are real threats in the world, they can be overcome through careful thinking and problem solving. The movies present the viewer with a tangible solution to a danger, leaving those who experience anxiety feeling calmer afterwards, as vigilance generally prevails in the end.

“It encourages facing fears rather than repressing them,” says Anders Bergstrom who taught a third-year course on horror and gothic film at Wilfrid Laurier University. “It also allows people to express desires that would not normally be allowed, but very often ends in a restoration of social order and ethical norms. This is why horror films often have very specific resonances with the concerns and fears of the day. The wondrous and mysterious can often become terrifying, think ‘the fear of God’. Humans have sought out the sublime and powerful as a way to give over control and provide a relief from the pressures of life.”

In particular, Loiselle has many students studying a feminist perspective, examining what’s referred to as “the final girl” motif. Movies such as Halloween or Scream identify a female character early on in the story who is different from the others and usually goes on to defeat the villain or escape.

“There are variations of this, but it generally functions along the same lines,” he says. “There’s a female character who is more intelligent than other characters, more vigilant. The motif shows that it’s a threatening world, especially for women, and until we manage to change that, we have to respond in a way that’s more vigilant in order to survive.”

On a more base level, the genre forces an individual to be present and in the moment—another antidote to anxiety—while also becoming a vehicle for stress relief.

“It offers a safe space to engage with violations and rejections of social norms,” says Bergstrom.

“Something deep down inside of everyone longs for this sovereignty of the villain, for the ability of the monster to do whatever it wants to,” adds Loiselle. “When it feels like slashing people to pieces it does it. When I feel like slashing people to pieces because they annoy me at work, well, I’ll go see a horror film instead.”

Bonding and self-discovery through horror

Researchers have observed countless times how audience screams are almost always followed by laughter, according to Loiselle. Like campfire ghost stories, viewing a scary movie with others creates a strength-in-numbers, we’re-in-this-together type experience. One’s less likely to feel vulnerable and alone, making the experience ripe for bonding.

“Many films work on isolation, drawing on a deeply rooted response that we don’t want to be alone during a threat,” says Loiselle. “We become grateful that we’re in a group.”

Horror films create a space for more intellectual pondering and self-discovery, as well, allowing viewers to speculate how they would react in the same situation, wonder why something is scary and what it means, and deal with current problems and fears of society.

“A typical example is The Walking Dead,” says Loiselle. “Fans follow it week after week, and make interesting connections to what’s happening in our society. They ask questions like, what would I do in the case of social collapse where society has lost its rules? What sort of leader would I be? Which side would I take?

“TV shows like this are interesting because you get to know the characters and align yourself with them. People watch horror movies over and over again for this same reason. They’re constantly being remade, or having sequels.”

Bergstrom points to examples of post-war horror films and how they tackled social themes of the decade. Many movies at this time dealt with gender issues, the growth of suburbia, and women’s isolation brought about by soldiers returning to their jobs that had been occupied by women during the war.

Fear of nature in Canadian horror

Loiselle’s recent book examines common tropes in Canadian horror where he found Canadian films have a tendency to emphasize the terrors of nature and isolation.

“They play on this fear of walls being broken, the outside getting inside, or the inside getting outside,” he says. “Filmmakers emphasize this fear the outside world will come in and crush us, or that our bodies are going to be dispersed in the world out there.

“They explore the idea of cabin fever and the human psyche when it feels trapped, and what happens when our insanity undermines the careful rules and regulations that were set in place, when our sense of being human slips away from us.”

See the first part of our Halloween series on the EcoGothic.

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