The Psychology of Horror

September 14, 2017

“The horror … the horror.” Apocalypse Now

Stephen King’s It is officially breaking box-office records in just its first week of distribution. In fact, the frightening clown-themed horror flick raked in a staggering $123 million in its opening weekend, shattering the record of the previous top-opening R-rated horror movie, Paranormal Activity 3, which earned $52.6 million. It now holds the title of the largest horror opening for any MPAA rating, and the largest September and Fall season debuts.

The unprecedented popularity of the disquieting film begs the question: Why are normally intelligent, discerning, caring people drawn to horror movies? That is to say, who would pay hard-earned money to watch a film about a terrifying—and damn ugly—clown that abducts and murders children? After all, it’s clear a record number of viewers are more than willing to pay the ticket and take the ride.

One argument is that primal violence is buried deep in our collective subconscious along with a readiness to fight to the the death in extreme circumstances. However, being we’ve had to collectively suppress these violent impulses so that society might evolve, horror films give folks a cathartic bang on an anachronistic and perhaps even genetic level.

Another argument concerns the idea of novelty. We are all drawn to experiences which are new, unique, and anomalistic in nature. And let’s face it, watching someone get stalked and ripped to shreds is not something you see every day–at least that’s the assumption! But novelty is an important factor in human evolution. If we didn’t try new things and crave titillating and risky experiences, there’s a good chance our species would never have survived. So, urges to watch supernatural beasts terrorizing naive young people is arguably beneficial to the longevity of the human race!

Still another argument is that watching horror films is simply an adrenaline rush– a rush like no other. Some skydive, some river raft on roaring rapids, some step into the octagon, and others gobble up the scariest horror films they can imagine. Horror fans often talk about the rush as if it’s a hard-core drug or like the buzz of a rock concert. And with the advent of social media, that adrenaline and excitement are heightened by interaction with other horror fans; often in real time. There is also scientific evidence that adrenaline can lead to higher levels of serotonin and feelings of euphoria, as any true horror fan will attest.

So, is it the bang, the buzz, the sheer nihilism of it all? Or is there a deeper psychological issue at play here? Or is it both? Why oh why do we put ourselves through “the horror?” Please feel free to share your own thoughts.

And as for Stephen King’s It? Well, it seems there are more sightings this year of creepy clowns in the woods of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, etc.. Who knows? Pennywise might very well be out there … maybe even under your bed!