By Kat Shook
What kind of person exposes themselves to visually dismantling cinema?
I am referring to the kinds of films that meld hypnotic poses with horrific imagery, films that traipse triumphantly on the border of insanity and offer the sort of cerebral experience that threatens to explode one’s core beliefs. Too, I am referring to the kind of films that offer a whim and a dally in the ultimate visual glitch and mindfuckery. I am talking about movies that had (have) top-shelf cover art, but defied video store shelf categories.
So, who would willingly subject themselves to the torture, violence, monsters, nightmares, and bareboned, uncomfortable human truth that is peddled in these films? Who might seek revelation through that kind of consensual distress?
Largely, who in the hell is watching these damn movies?!?
For the sake of this bit, I boil film oddities and obscurities down to their conclusive genre bones—HORROR, because not much research has been conducted to address specific subgenres (specifically of the surreal nature—or horror extravaganzas wet with the guts of panic-melon and apprehension juice). Just know that the term “horror” includes those cerebral, surreal, science-fiction demonstrations, and that, in general, I am more interested in the subjugation of the conjugal terms.
All of that cushy, preliminary establishment to offer this crux query – who exactly are the people who dare to dick logic and enjoy getting their minds consistently plummetted and reamed?
Part I: Stereotypes and Ambiguous Demographics
WHY would a person subject themselves to images of murderous mayhem and unnerving, vivid fever dreams?
Who are these weird people who strut to a soundtrack of maniacal laughter, who encourage exploration beyond the black and white, and who go through gray to find color?
As soon as images began to flicker and move and come to life, they became narcissistic nibblers on the malleable brains of children. Soon, to pair with those films, the belief of thievery and sway was delivered to the masses along with the claim that films in the horror genre are unnecessary corrupters of our easily seduced and weak minds. That idea became fortified by psychologists, like L. Rowell Huesmann and Leonard Eron, who proposed that exposure to such media would lead to juvenile delinquents and deviance of all sorts which would inevitably end in arrest. And there has never been a shortage of experts who are willing to attest on their behalf to further perpetuate the farce that is—fictional violence begets actual violence. But these studies are flawed as they are particularly aimed at children without factoring in variables such as home life and mental fitness.1
Of course, it makes sense that a repressed fundamentalist might fearmonger and project their own alarmist views. Collectively (historically), we love to hate together. So, I think it is safe to say that your typical horror connoisseur is not going to be reserved, bourgeois, conservative, or conformist.
So, what is the image of a horror fan? Are we crouched, goblin-like, boneless pseudo-humans who creep around underground venues, stalking and waiting for our next act of sadistic bloodshed?
Sure, Jeffrey Dahmer’s favorite movie was The Exorcist III, but John Wayne Gacey enjoyed the soft, romantic rhetoric of REO Speedwagon.
Either way—that doesn’t really mean a thang.
Basically, inclusivity thrives here as there is no evidence of direct correlation between psychopathy and the consumption of horror movies. Nor is there evidence to suggest that in general horror films might spawn a horrible person (as per the rules of our unwritten social and civilized contract, one who responds to stimuli inappropriately and forcefully and behaves in a disrespecting, repugnant manner). Though typically, the horror genre portrays mental illness in a less than favorable light, relying on stereotypes and “push[ing] the association between psychiatric diagnoses and dangerousness.” 4
In a horror film, a stint in a psychiatric facility may result in becoming a midnight stalker and back-alley butcher, but most of us in our interactions with people who have mental illness or in our own experience with mental illness know that these are sensationalized and damaging depictions. 2
So, where does that leave the horror movie fan? Does mental illness play a role in a fascination with the horror genre? Are those stigmas a deterrence? From my own viewpoint, I am able to connect myself to this genre through my own anxiety disorder and PTSD, and I can see how it informs my overall interest and interaction with the genre. Concerning stigmas, I can see where various depictions are dangerous and problematic in their perpetuation of stereotypes and how that might foster a twisted worldview on mental health. Further, I am aware that the employment of psychopathic imagery to represent mental illness is gravely erroneous. In those understandings, I am also able to appreciate that what I am consuming are radical fictions and that human merit and intricacies are far more complex than any horror movie generalization. And I am not saying that horror movies are without value. I would not be writing this paper if the value were null.
Beyond psychological, what is the mathematical, demographical breakdown?
By IQ – Unknown.
Obvious motives afoot, I would surmise high to middling. I did read an article on Thought Catalog, which is as reliable and sturdy as anything else on the trip-dub webs, that suggested intelligence and the horror movie fandom are connected.12 By age, sex, race, and ethnicity—
According to Nielsen Fanlinks 2015 data, horror movie fans are 23% more likely than the average consumer to be between the ages of 35 and 44. That means quite a few are Gen-Xers who grew up watching Wes Craven slasher classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. Today, this group seems happy to make fear a family affair, as horror movie fans are 24% more likely to be part of a three or more-person household, with children skewing between the ages of 6 and 17.
Elaborating further on demographic Nielsen Fanlinks found that—
Macabre movies are also especially popular among the diverse horror fan audience; horror fans are 23% more likely to be Hispanic than the average consumer and 15% more likely to be African American.7
Most surveys suggest that the viewership is predominantly young, male, and white. In G. Neil Martin’s article, “(Why) Do You Like Scary Movies? A Review of the Empirical Research on Psychological Responses to Horror Films,” he writes, “The most consistent individual difference predicting individuals’ response to horror film is biological sex: men and boys enjoy frightening and violent visual material more than do women and girls.”5 In a study conducted by the Data Science team at Movio, they too observed that both paranormal horror and science-fiction horror fans skewed male with women preferring paranormal horror to science-fiction horror.6 Women appear to be missing from our vision of the quintessential horror fan almost completely, but that image will continue to shift with evolutionary changes in societal norms and as more research on the subject becomes available to us.
Part II: The Pleasure Principal Expansion Pack
Who among us would describe themselves as a sensation seeker?
We tend to be “fascinated by what scares us, be it sky-diving, roller-coasters, or true-crime documentaries—provided these threats are kept at a safe distance.” 14 The physical and neurological responses are similar to watching a horror film. So, it makes sense that those of us who enjoy that rush of adrenaline might lean in eager to squeeze the horror genre. Another explanation may be that viewers of this genre are simply phobophiles – definitively speaking, people who possess an innate love of fear or people who are prone to a bout of dark, gothic rip-a-doo in their amygdaloo. On the other end of the spectrum, highly sensitive people (HSPs), for obvious reasons, do not click with fright flicks or summon any kind of love for horror.
According to Glenn Sparks, Ph.D, a professor and associate head of the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, one reason for the appeal [of horror films] is how you feel after the movie. This is called the excitation transfer process. [His research] found that when people watch frightening films, their heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increase.13
Then, when the threat is vanquished, the movie over, we feel physical relief. We feel safe again. Therefore, consuming horror movies will be desirable to some people, especially if their post-film experience is a pleasurable one (for example—watching with friends then hanging out and laughing with friends after the movie).
Sparks says that variation in wiring also accounts for some of the appeal, “Some people are simply wired to enjoy high levels of physiological arousal.”13 Horror may be satiating a hormonal need or itching an adrenal gland scratch.
Coltan Scrivner created the Morbid Curiosity Scale, which is a psychometric tool used to measure information regarding morbid curiosity, which he “define[s] as motivation to seek out information about dangerous phenomena” and the psychological nature of such. Based on his research, he contends that “the success of horror films, popularity of true crime, and prevalence of violence in the news implies that morbid curiosity is a common psychological trait.” 9 The overall arching implication here is that even if some of us simply creep from afar or dabble in the horror genre, there is evidence that a certain level of morbid curiosity exists as an innate psychological attribute of human design.
PART III: The Traumatized and Anxious Masses
“Everyone must go through MacGregor.” – Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973).
And we do go through.
“Suspense and resolution of suspense are two important components of horror and our response to horror film.” 5
People who house trauma(s) and fear(s) (hence, majority) may be able to overcome or at least cope with those sufferings and phobias through horror films by exposing themselves to the very things that scare them. In the National Geographic article, “How horror movies can help people overcome real-world trauma,” Nicole Johnson explains how horror films helped her conquer the trauma response of excessive fear that accompanied her mother’s drug overdose death. For her, “[H]orror movies remain an invaluable coping tool. The effect is a primary tenet of what’s called exposure therapy—forcing ourselves to face fear as a way to overcome it.”3
Horror also provides an outlet with coping mechanisms for people who experience intense anxiety. Radio personality and lead producer of Spooked, Eliza Smith, believes that horror aids in the alleviation of her anxiety. After a traumatic life event which prompted chronic anxiety, Smith felt that horror saved her—it’s another tool in her toolbox.8
When [Smith] feels a panic attack coming on, [she] turns to her husband Jacob, who knowingly turns on the TV and asks the voice assistant to bring up any free horror movies it can find. And then they sit together and watch.
Smith recounts, “The horror movie helps me simulate the fear that I’m feeling during my panic attack in a controlled environment—and the controlled environment is completely make believe—right?”8
Watching a horror film may allow the viewer a balanced level of control. They know what to expect when they select a film in that genre, and they know that at the end of that film experience, they are going to walk away physically unharmed (non-fatal) with austere motor functions intact. As gruesome and grotesque as some of these movies may be, there might be safety and security in them-there reels.
Currently, there do not appear to be any empirical studies on this phenomenon. Anecdotal reports, like the one above suggests that horror films can be used to “deal with clinical anxiety,” and others have reported success with watching horror to self-trigger as a way of controlling their own PTSD.10
PART IV: A Summation of Parts and Last Suppositions
Are minds sacrificial? And to which film goddesses do we plea?
Horror may appeal to insightful people who are interested in the exploration of their own minds and the minds of others as well as people who are intrigued by their own psychological and metaphorical existence and the perseverance of such. Offering assumptions, it may be the same people who are okay with the occasional vacation in mind-altering states.
In a recent study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers revealed that—Fans of horror films exhibited greater resilience during the pandemic and that fans of “prepper” genres (alien-invasion, apocalyptic, and zombie films) exhibited both greater resilience and preparedness. We also found that trait morbid curiosity was associated with positive resilience and interest in pandemic films during the pandemic. Taken together, these results are consistent with the hypothesis that exposure to frightening fictions allow audiences to practice effective coping strategies that can be beneficial in real-world situations.11
Their research concluded that “Experience with [horror] simulations may benefit the user through preparation and practice of both specific skills relevant to particular situations and more general skills associated with emotion regulation.”11
Hopefully, as we continue to learn more about how our brains work, there will be even more contemporary studies to explore the benefits of watching horror.
Anything beyond this point is fair, unresearched conjecture or accurate speculative account based on my own intrapersonal spirits, which has a foundation just as rock-hard, if not more so, than any given 24-hour news channel.
Essentially, my answer—
Who ventures a fast ride on the slipping Lost Highway by way of Möbius Strip? Who dreams to one day see a literal projection of our dreams and takes pleasure in watching various artists manifest and launch an excavation of subconscious onto a massive screen? Who likes it freaky and deaky and off-beat and like, woah and all “the things that make you go ‘Hmmm…”?
Subliminal malformation, guided traversing into the unknown, and an alleviation of internal atmospheric pressure is desirable to me. Also, I am a woman who knows what she likes, and I like it weird. The world can be vicious, ugly, and dark, but armed with teeth, I am not afraid to confront it. These films challenge me, guide me, inform me, and help me cope. They unite different points of contact within the realms of my own mind and help me to be at peace with that unlikely accord.
Fundamentally, the horror films that exist in the ether of weird and weirdly entertaining, the ones who offer the most bizarre experiences stemming from the kings and queens of bizarre cinema (creators of a revolutionary perspective—a perspective that exists without boundaries—Germaine Dulac, David Lynch, Guy Maddin, Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Cronenberg, Suzan Pitt) are of particular interest to me, but hey, I like it all. In that way, I am perfectly okay with someone wrecking my shit.
Horror and surrealist cinema is by default uncomfortable and strange. “Normal,” mentally healthy people don’t slaughter, slay, and play that way. But, in dreams, we all visit realms that aren’t meant to be seen. Art depicts beauty in the same way that it depicts things that are obscene and shocking—and the two aren’t always going to be mutually exclusive. Horror, science fiction, and surreal can go bolt-to-screw with their beautiful depictions of the unexpectedly sublime by being subversive. Nothing being off limits within these genres allows for our greatest creativity to emerge. And the people who love these types of films are probably going to be some of the most creative, coolest, and most interesting people you will meet.
THEY, who embrace their own eccentricities and darkness; They who jab at vulgarities and fight relentlessly to crush trauma; They who find light where light should not exist. They are, if you’re open to it,
- American Psychological Association. (2013, November). Violence in the Media–Psychologists Study Potential Harmful Effects. APA Psychology: Science in Action. https://www.apa.org/action/resources/research-in-action/protect
- Heffernan, L. (2019, November 6). Are scary movies bad for your health? Top Doctors UK. https://www.topdoctors.co.uk/blog/are-scary-movies-bad-for-your-health/
- Johnson, N. (2021, February 10). How horror movies can help people overcome real-world trauma. National Geographic Science. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/how-horror-movies-can-help-overcome-trauma-and-relieve-stress
- Mancine, R. (2020, September 10). Psychiatry Online. The American Journal of Psychiatry Residents’ Journal. https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/action/cookieAbsent
- Martin, G. N. (2019). (Why) Do You Like Scary Movies? A Review of the Empirical Research on Psychological Responses to Horror Films. PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6813198/
- Movio. (2018, October 28). Unmasking Horror Moviegoing Audiences. Movio Blog. https://movio.co/blog/unmasking-horror-moviegoing-audiences/
- The Nielsen Company (US), LLC. (2015, October 29). Frightful Fans: The Profile of Horror Movie Lovers. https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/article/2015/frightful-fans-the-profile-of-horror-movie-lovers/
- Riechers, M. (2020, November 6). Treating Anxiety With Horror Films. To The Best Of Our Knowledge. https://www.ttbook.org/interview/treating-anxiety-horror-films
- Scrivner, C. (2020, March 27). The Psychology of Morbid Curiosity: Development and Initial Validation of the Morbid Curiosity Scale. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/xug34
- Scrivner, C., & Christensen, K. A. (2021). Scaring away anxiety: Therapeutic avenues for horror fiction to enhance treatment for anxiety symptoms. ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349041068_Scaring_away_anxiety_Therapeutic_avenues_for_horror_fiction_to_enhance_treatment_for_anxiety_symptoms
- Scrivner, C., Johnson, J. A., Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, J., & Clasen, M. (2021, January 1). Pandemic practice: Horror fans and morbidly curious individuals are more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic. PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7492010/
- Stockton, C. (2020, October 9). 7 Reasons Horror Fans Tend To Be The Most Intelligent Kind Of Viewer. Thought Catalog. https://thoughtcatalog.com/christine-stockton/2016/06/7-reasons-horror-fans-tend-to-be-the-most-intelligent-kind-of-viewer/
- Tartakovsky, M. M. S. (2012, October 31). Why Some People Love Horror Movies While Others Hate Them. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/blog/why-some-people-love-horror-movies-while-others-hate-them#1
- University of Turku. (2020, January 24). Horror movies manipulate brain activity expertly to enhance excitement. ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200124104518.htm
Kat Shook is a wily writer from the enchanted hills of West Virginia. She has written for as long as she can remember—which is evidenced by the whirlwind trail of scattered and abandoned letters she has left behind. Many moons and gaffes ago, she received a degree in this stuff (B.A. in English/Literature from Concord University in Athens, WV). She has penned several stumbling lines of poetry, a trickle of short stories (non-fiction, horror, erotic, and bizarro), and a few provocative articles on politics and music. Also, she was the editor for My Shrinking Fat Belly: A Surrogate’s Side by Jana Jarrett. Kat lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which thwarts her mind on occasion. Fortunately, therapy provides her with the tools she needs to stay balanced. Kat is also a social justice warrior who rails against poverty through activism. She volunteers as a mentor for children in her community and is a longtime advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights. She has been married to her darling wife, Elizabeth, for four years now. They live and thrive together by the Shenandoah River with their pups, Cassette and BMO, as well as their elderly cat, Autumn.