Lazy Saturday Reads: The Psychology of Horror

Boris Karloff

Good Morning!!

This is the time of year when lots of people get the urge to watch old horror movies, and I’m one of them. Actually, I love horror movies any time of year, but October is when the TV programmers provide the most opportunities for horror fans to indulge their cravings.

I love to watch old Hitchcock movies like Psycho and The Birds. They never seem to get old. And then there are the cheesy slasher movies like Halloween and Friday the Thirteenth that are still kind of fun to sample this time of year.

I love George Romero’s classic zombie films like Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, and dystopian films from the 1950s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I’ve enjoyed more recent zombie classics too–28 Days Later comes to mind. Old creature features are fun too–have you ever seen Them? It’s a 1954 film about giant ants in the New Mexico desert created by radiation from atomic tests.

Of course there are plenty of new horror offerings these days too. Dakinikat recommended a couple of TV shows that I plan to try over this long weekend: American Horror Story on FX and Z Nation on the Syfy Channel. These days there is plenty of real-life horror going on, so I don’t know why so many people like to escape into horror films and TV shows, but it seems they do. There’s also The Walking Dead on AMC. I watched the first season, but kind of lost interest after that because I find the characters so unlikable.

It’s interesting that zombies and vampires have been very much in vogue in the 21st Century. Why is that? Do they somehow reflect our culture like the movies of the 1950s and ’60s seemed to comment on the cold war and fears of nuclear disaster?

Anyway, since it’s Saturday and long weekend (Monday is Columbus Day, a horror story in itself), I’m going to devote this post to the psychology of horror–why are some of us so drawn to it? Believe it or not, psychologists have systematically studied this. Here’s a survey article published in The Psychologist, a UK psychology magazine: The Lure of Horror (pdf). There’s an easier-to-read version here.

Fear coils in your stomach and clutches at your heart. It’s an unpleasant emotion we usually do our best to avoid. Yet across the world and through time people have been drawn irresistibly to stories designed to scare them. Writers like Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Clive Barker continue to haunt the popular consciousness. Far longer ago, listeners sat mesmerised by violent, terrifying tales like Beowulf and Homer’s Odyssey.

‘If you go to your video store and rent a comedy from Korea, it’s not going to make any sense to you at all,’ says literature scholar Mathias Clasen based at Aarhus University, ‘whereas if you rent a local horror movie from Korea you’ll instantaneously know not just that it’s a horror movie, but you’ll have a physiological reaction to it, indicative of the genre.’

hitchcock-reads-book

So horror is a universal language recognized by our brains?

Clasen believes the timeless, cross-cultural appeal of horror fiction says something important about humans, and in turn, insights from evolutionary psychology can make sense of why horror takes the form it does. ‘You can use horror fiction and its lack of historical and cultural variance as an indication that there is such a thing as human nature,’ he says.

This nature of ours is one that has been shaped over millennia to be afraid, but not just of anything. Possibly our ancestors’ greatest fear was that they might become a feast for a carnivorous predator. As science writer David Quammen has put it, ‘among the earliest forms of human self-awareness was the awareness of being meat’. There’s certainly fossil evidence to back this up, suggesting that early hominids were preyed on by carnivores and that they scavenged from the kill sites of large felines, and vice versa. Modern-day hunter-gatherers, such as the Aché foragers in Paraguay, still suffer high mortality rates from snakes and feline attacks.

Such threats have left their marks on our cognitive development. Research by Nobuo Masataka and others shows that children as young as three are especially fast at spotting snakes, as opposed to flowers, on a computer screen, and all the more so when those snakes are poised to strike. Modern-day threats, such as cars and guns, do not grab the attention in this way. That we’re innately fearful of atavistic threats is known as ‘prepared learning’. Another study published just this year by Christof Koch and his team has shown how the right amygdala, a brain region involved in fear learning, responds more vigorously to the sight of animals than to other pictures such as of people, landmarks or objects.

Viewing the content of horror fiction through the prism of evolutionary evidence and theory, it’s no surprise that the overriding theme of many tales is that the characters are at risk of being eaten. ‘Do we have many snakes or snake-like creatures or giant serpents in horror fiction?’ Clasen asks. ‘Yes we do: look at Tremors – they were really just very big snakes with giant fangs’. In fact, many horror books and movie classics feature oversized carnivorous predators, including James Herbert’s The Rats, Shaun Hutson’s Slugs, Cat People, King Kong, and the Jaws franchise, to name but a few. Where the main threat is a humanoid predator, he or she will often be armed with over-sized claws (Freddie Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street) or an insatiable taste for human flesh (e.g. Hannibal Lecter in the 1981 novel Red Dragon).

Vince Price reads

Still, horror is a minority taste. Why are some people–like me–so attracted to it, while others are simply grossed out?

Who are these people who pay out money to be scared? A meta-analysis of 35 relevant articles, by Cynthia Hoffner and Kenneth Levine published in 2005 in Media Psychology, highlights the principal relevant traits: affective response; empathy; sensation seeking; aggressiveness; gender; and age.

The more negative affect a person reports experiencing during horror, the more likely they are to say that they enjoy the genre. Media experts like Dolf Zillmann make sense of this apparent contradiction as a kind of conversion process, whereby the pleasure comes from the relief that follows once characters escape danger. This explanation struggles to account for the appeal of slasher films, in which most characters are killed. Part of the answer must lie with meta-emotion – the way we interpret the emotional feelings we’re experiencing, with some people finding pleasure in fright. Another possibility is that, for some, pleasure is derived from the sense that film victims are being punished for what the viewer considers to be their immoral behaviour. Consistent with this, a 1993 study by Mary Oliver found that male high school viewers who endorsed traditional views on female sexuality (e.g. ‘it’s okay for men to have sex before marriage, but not women’), were more likely to enjoy horror movie clips, especially if they involved a female victim portrayed with her lover.

Other findings: people with low self-reported levels of empathy and younger people tend to be more attracted to horror. Neither of those explains my interest–I score high on empathy, and I’m an old lady. So what’s my problem?! Maybe I just never really grew up?

Read much more at the link. Since it’s a scholarly article, there are references to research articles too.

Here’s another interesting article at Filmmaker IQ: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SCARY MOVIES.

There’s something about horror that speaks directly and instinctively to the human animal. Millions of years of evolutionary psychology have ingrained in our minds certain fear triggers – a survival instinct – Fear of the Dark where predatory animals might be laying in wait – Fear of animals with large sharp teeth who would make a quick meal of us. Fear of Poisonous Spiders who can kill with one bite. So ingrained into our developmental psychology that research done by Nobuo Masataka show that children as young as three have an easier time spotting snakes on a computer screen than they do spotting flowers. Research by Christof Koch show that the right amygydala, the portion of the brain associated with fear learning, responds more vigorously to images of animals than to images of people, landmarks or objects even though those are much more dangerous in our civilized world.

This may explain the shape of our movie monsters: creatures with sharp teeth or snake like appearance. The fear of being eaten alive also explains the cannabilistic traits of human monsters like Dracula and Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

But brain scan research in 2010 by Thomas Straube at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena show that scary movies don’t actually activate fear responses in the amygdala at all. Instead, it was other parts of the brain that were firing – the visual cortex – the part of the brain responsible for processing visual information, the insular cortex- self awareness, the thalamus -the relay switch between brain hemispheres, and the dorsal-medial prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain associated with planning, attention, and problem solving.

So we’re not really being scared at the movies – at least not necessarily in the brain chemistry way… what’s going on?

dracula reads

Three things, according to Dr. Glenn D. Walters.

The first is tension – created through mystery, suspense, gore, terror, or shock. This is pretty straight forward elements of horror, the craft and technique of filmmaking.

The second factor is relevance. In order for a horror film to be seen, it has to be relevant to potential viewers. This relevance can take the form of universal relevance – capturing the universal fear of things like death and the unknown, it can take on cultural relevance dealing with societal issues. Audiences can find subgroup relevance – groups like teenagers which many horror films are about. Lastly, there’s personal relevance – either in a way that identifies with the protagonist or in a way that condemns the antagonists or victims to their ultimate fate.

The last factor, which may be the most counter intuitive is unrealism. Despite the graphic nature of recent horror films, we all know at some level that what we are watching is not real. Haidt, McCauley and Rozin conducted research on disgust, showing students in 1994 a series of gruesome documentary videos… few could make it to the end – and yet these same students would pay to see even worse acts conducted on a movie screen. Why? Perhaps its because when we walk into a theater we know what we’re seeing on screen is fabricated reality. Movies are edited from multiple camera angles with soundtracks and sometimes horror is tempered and made palatable with black humor – a sly wink that what you’re seeing on screen isn’t real. This also explains why we all remember that scary movie we saw when we were way too young but looks hokey now. Children have a harder time separating reality and fiction especially when its on a movie screen.

There’s much more to the article, including a brief summary of “8 incomplete theories on our attraction to horror.”

One eminent psychologist, Joseph LeDoux, a professor at NYU, has a particular interest in emotion and the brain and more specifically fear and the amygdala. Here’s the intro to a brief interview with him at Cognitive Neuroscience:

With Halloween around the corner, fear may be on your mind. As a basic emotion, fear develops when we react to an immediate danger.

Understanding exactly how our brains detect and respond to such danger has been a goal of Joseph LeDoux of the Center for Neural Science at New York University for much of his career. His pioneering work on “fear conditioning,” which he now calls “threat conditioning,” revealed the neurological pathways through which we react to threats.

This Pavlovian-type conditioning uses a neutral stimulus like an auditory tone at the same time as a painful event, and over time, this tone becomes associated with the discomfort and can trigger a fear response in the brain, specifically the amygdala. The neural processing in the amygdala causes chemical processes in the brain cells that lead to our natural defenses in the face of a threat – whether a spider or a robber.

LeDoux’s work has not only contributed to our understanding of these processes but also to ways we can work to overcome pathological fears, including through work on memory and fear.

Read the interview at the link. And here is an audio interview with LeDoux at ConstructingHorror.com.

died laughing

LeDoux told the LA Times in October 2013 that intense emotions like fear stimulate the brain.

Arousing situations, “whether joyful or frightful, juice up the brain,” says Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist and director of New York University’s Emotional Brain Institute and author of “The Emotional Brain.”

Horror movies energize the system: Hearts pump faster, blood pressure rises and dopamine releases, as does norepinephrine (which readies the body for flight-or-fight response) and endorphins (which kill pain), Fanselow says.

But experts agree that children’s brains are too vulnerable for scary movies.

And some adults are vulnerable too. “There have been case reports of people having stress symptoms after watching ‘The Exorcist,’ ” says Richard J. McNally, a Harvard psychology professor. “But these folks already had histories of mental disorders and thus were vulnerable.”

And many people want nothing to do with Halloween frights. “Genetics, epigenetics, upbringing and all the other individual experiences they’ve had probably all contribute,” LeDoux says. “It’s a matter of degree.”

Read more about the effects of horror on the brain at the LA Times link.

A few more horror links:

The Atlantic, Horror-Movie Marathon: The Brilliant, Not-So-Scary Classics.

The Atlantic, How Clowns Became Terrifying.

People Magazine, From It to American Horror Story: 13 of the Creepiest Clowns in Pop Culture History.

What Culture, 10 Best Horror Movies Of 2014 Ranked.

Rolling Stone, Readers’ Poll: The 10 Best Horror Movies of All Time.

The Washington Post, The sums of all fear: Horror makes a Hollywood comeback.

The Verge, Check out this gorgeous limited edition art for 13 classic horror movies.

So . . . are you a horror fan? If so, what are your favorite horror movies and books? Why do you think you enjoy them? If you’re not a fan, why do you think that is?

Of course you should feel free to post links to real-life horrors or even good news stories if you can find them!