The psychology of horrific satisfaction

Lauren Grill, Arts & Entertainment Columnist

October, for some, is the most comforting month. Every year, it rolls around and greets us with the familiarity of fall, wrapping us in crisp temperatures and warm drinks like an old blanket.
For others, however, when the calendar flips from Sept. 30, it’s the start of the most deliciously terrifying season. October is spent by fear fanatics indulging in haunted houses. While traditional adrenaline-inducing Halloween activities have been put on hold due to COVID-19, the thrill-seeking cohort is left with only one option: horror movies.
I never saw the appeal of horror movies until last year, where I was dragged into Century-12 to see Jordan Peele’s Us. I sat in the back row, clutching a friend’s hand in fear as the trailers played. But to my surprise, as the movie went on, I wasn’t filled with instant regret: I loved it. The anticipation of not knowing what has next filled me with delightful shock that I hadn’t experienced before. From then on, I was hooked.
So why do we like horror movies? Fear is usually something humans try to avoid at all costs. But for some reason, scary movies are becoming increasingly popular, accounting for the highest box office rates of return in 2019 (Medium). Horror films are enticing for three main reasons, according to a study published in the Journal of Media Psychology.
The first is tension. Viewers love watching uncertainty unfold right in front of them. This explains the appeal of slasher movies like Nightmare on Elm Street. In a psychological study performed in 1994, researchers found that people enjoy gore in movies because they place “psychological distance” between them and the violence they see on screen (Psychology Today). This gives viewers a sense of control, on top of the shock factor.
The second reason we love horror movies is relevance. This factor accounts for the slew of recent horror films that can be classified as “psychological thrillers.” Instead of senseless gore, these thrillers often have a deeper societal meaning. Director Ari Aster’s horror films including Midsommar and Hereditary are disturbing, but also carry real themes of belonging, family issues, and human relationships. The same can be said about Jordan Peele’s films, which comment on social issues facing the country today while remaining clever and horrifying.
Finally, horror movies are appealing because of their “unrealism.” People like to watch these types of movies because they know they’re pretending, and separate these worlds from the real one. According to Dr. Katherine Brownlowe, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, getting through an entire horror movie is enjoyable for most. People are often less scared of real-world issues, like giving an important presentation, after distancing themselves from the problems characters face in horror films. In other words, horror makes the real world seem less scary. The perfect escapist tale may just be a click away in the horror section on Hulu or Netflix. In a controlled environment, horror challenges our beliefs about reality, a concoction suitable for the country’s climate today. As we try to escape the nightmare of a world around us this fall, the answer to finding comfort may just be watching an even scarier one on screen.