Certain villainous characters make you love them by connecting on an empathetic level, some train you to enjoy them, and we seek out others for more primal experiences — like our own arousal. More accurately, this arousal is actually the fear we experience while watching slasher-horror films featuring villains like Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers.
In 1974, psychologists Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron conducted an experiment in which they asked men to cross either an unsteady suspension bridge or a sturdy bridge, then fill out a survey and make up a story inspired by an ambiguous illustration (called a TAT — thematic apperception test) provided by a female interviewer. The interviewer then gave each man a contact number should they have any other questions.
Those who crossed the fear-inducing bridge called the woman back 50 percent of the time and were more likely to sexualize their story of the illustration. The men who crossed the regular bridge only called 12.5 percent of the time, and their stories were less likely to be sexual in nature. The study concluded that if you’re a bit rattled, you're also likely to be aroused, sexually. It may be counterintuitive, but biology doesn't lie. Studies such as this show we enjoy watching slasher movies not simply because a date might jump into our arms or lap, but because the fear they cause is arousing.
Fight, Flight, And That Other F-Word
This psychological concept — of confusing fear for attraction — is called Misattribution of Arousal (or the Excitation Transfer Theory), and can occur whenever our body reacts with excitement to stimuli. For those watching slasher films, this tendency to confuse fear with attraction can be caused (and even increased) by a number of different factors.
Increased pulse, labored breathing, wide eyes, open mouth — these bodily reactions can be caused by fear as frequently as they can sexual arousal.When the limbic system (a group of structures in the brain dealing with emotions and behavior) is excited, it releases chemicals — norepinephrine and dopamine — that result in an adrenaline rush. It’s that rush, and the near euphoric relief in knowing we’re alive and safe that comes directly after, that we go on roller coasters and in haunted houses. Watching Michael Myers's knife hack through a closet door after his latest victim is no different.
As the natural fight-or-flight instinct kicks in as a result of the shocks onscreen, audiences automatically look around for the threat, but there isn’t one — not a real one anyway. Instead, people instinctually latch onto other reasons for their body’s reactions. They look to the people around them, to their date, or the ladies still alive and kicking on the big screen. It’s why the final girl often becomes a crush for male audiences watching them. All that blood-pumping arousal turns to the woman on the screen, where it becomes attraction — Jamie Lee Curtis practically made her early career off it.
A Nightmare on Elm Street has a number of memorable scenes, including one in which the main girl, Nancy, is bathing. Sunk in the tub up to her neck, she plays with a facecloth as she drifts into exhaustion. Suddenly, from between her spread legs, the clawed hand of Freddy Krueger appears. Her mother knocks on the door to check on her, she wakes, and the hand disappears. Nancy settles back, drifts off once more, and the hand returns between her thighs and pulls her under, nearly drowning her.
For The Love Of Slashers, Sex And Violence
Many slasher films employ this tactic of switching between sex and violence, effectively blending the two forms of excitement. It’s a smart move that adds to the natural misattribution of arousal and genuine stimulation. Through the suggestion of sex, the suggestion of violence, or a graphic scene illustrating either (or both), the audience is sure to be titillated, and this increases the likelihood of audiences returning for sequels, prequels and crossovers.
People don’t watch slasher films to be sexually aroused, they go to be scared and shocked — to jump in their seats, scream, and enjoy the fact that they are, in fact, safe. They go to experience the slow burn of the #horror story being played out in I Know What You Did Last Summer, their pounding heartbeat when they hear the Halloween theme music, and that rush of excitement when the killer jumps out one last time, like at the end of Friday the 13th.
Audiences watch slasher films to get excited and, thanks to the misattribution of arousal, one form of excitement blends with another. Fear turns into arousal as you look at your date assuming he or she — not the fear from the movie — is what’s making it so hard to breath.
What slasher film made your heart race? Did you love it? Tell me below!