Screens big and small entertain us with horrifying gore, monsters, insanity and the supernatural. Although considered a mostly niche genre, horror films enjoy an avid following and rake in plenty of bucks at the box office. Yet, as horror buffs come down from their rush, many are ready to do it again. Being scared out of their wits, it seems, is fun.
The question is: Why? If our best selves find the horrific so repulsive, why do we pay good money to watch it again and again?
It's not only an attraction to blood and gore, experts say. People who liked the "Saw" series, for instance, wouldn't necessarily get such pleasure from watching a steer being murdered in a meat-processing plant. Studies say one reason we watch is because the thrill calls up deeply emotional behavior, mainly in males, to test/evaluate threat levels.
"People go to horror films because they want to be frightened or they wouldn't do it twice," says Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor of social and organizational behavior at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Goldstein edited a book on the subject titled, "Why We Watch: The Attractions of Violent Entertainment."
"You choose your entertainment because you want it to affect you. That's certainly true of people who go to entertainment products like horror films that have big effects. They want those effects," says Goldstein.
He and other social scientists suggest we watch for different reasons, which include enjoying the energy-giving body chemical rush, being distracted from ordinary and boring life, thumbing our noses at social norms , and enjoying a short look of the horror from a safe distance.
Just Plain Suspense
Among the recent list of films, "Paranormal Activity" has enjoyed excellent fame and respect as the "best horror movie ever" not only for its unknown filmmaker and impossibly low ($15,000) production cost -- but because it has racked up more than $85 million since the movie's opening in late September. The film remains a strong second-place money maker even as Michael Jackson's "This is It" knocked it from its five-week perch.
Regularly compared to "The Blair Witch Project" for its one-camera fact-filled style, "Paranormal" is about a young couple, Katie and Micah, who enlist equipment to record unexplained things-that-go-bump-in-the-nights spent in their newly home. Bumpy to near-nauseating at times, the shooting was done in seven days in 2006 with a crew of three at writer-director Oren Peli's San Diego house. With hardly a drop of blood, suspense builds as the demon makes it's danger known through more and more threatening acts the couple witness directly and on video replays. Eventually, things get personal between Micah and the demon despite pleas from Katie and Do Not Disturb warnings from a Psyshic.
The ending, which was changed from the original at the suggestion of Steven Spielberg, is worth the 86 minutes of nail biting. In an off-handed way, it does what Goldstein says horror films must: provide a just resolution in the end. The bad guy gets it.
"Even though they choose to watch these things, the images are still disturbing for many people," said Goldstein. "But people have the ability to pay attention as much or as little as they care to in order to control what effect it has on them, emotionally and otherwise."
In Your Brain
New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux has mapped out nerve cell by nerve cell how the brain's fear system works. He says the complex human brain with its huge ability for thinking, reasoning, and just plain careful musing, allows us to worry in ways other animals can't.
That is, fear is not only a biological reaction, but an emotion coming from both deep-seeded evolutionary factors as well as newly learned cautions. Conversations between the brain's primitive amygdala and the more recently acquired cortex allow humans to understand an environmental event and respond with an emotion such as fear.
"If you have a good imagination, you can connect to your hardwired fears simply by thinking about a scary situation" LeDouz says.
So far, though, the amygdala has the upper hand in the fear response. "This may explain why, once an emotion is stimulated, it is so hard for us to turn it off," he says. If we like that sort of thing, it may account for why we're so eager to turn it back on again.