I was around 13 years old when on a cold February night, my friends and I brought a film on rent from a video store. The film was — The Evil Dead, supernatural horror flick of 1981. The store manager had convinced us that it was the scariest film ever made. I don’t know about my friends but I had a prior experience of watching horror films. We were all excited by the thought of watching it together.
In the 1990s, if you wanted to watch a movie at home, VHS tapes and video cassette players were the only options available. So, five of us, all between 11–13 years old, gathered at my house, wrapped ourselves in comforters and switched on the movie. It was alright in the beginning when five college boys and girls take shelter in an abandoned mountain cabin surrounded by woods. Everything seemed fine till night when one of them discovers an old thick book filled with hieroglyphics and strange drawings in the cabin’s junk. Along with it, there is a message tape-recorded by an archaeologist. In his statement, professor describes the contents of the occult book and warns that playing the incantations can bring the demon to life.
It was a signal, and I remember that we paused the film here for a while so that if someone wanted to attend nature’s call, he could. We anticipated something terrible was going to happen soon. In a few minutes, we played the film again. Tense, and with widely opened eyes, following the music track and slow-moving shots, none of us was in the mood to blink our eyes.
Until then, I had a notion that horror films were here to frighten us and to evoke our disgust, but I wasn’t certain why. My prior short-lived experience of a bland horror film ended abruptly because it did not have the expected level of horror. Perhaps this was due to the open and unconcealed plot of the film. It led to ruining all the anticipatory fun I was waiting for.
Come again to the story of The Evil Dead. The professor explained that if a demon comes to life and takes possession of someone, it can only be killed by dismembering of that person’s body. Dismissive of the professor’s warnings, those boys played those incantations. Ritual chants traumatised one girl, who was then possessed by the evil spirit. Spirits transformed the girl into a murderous hag. As the curious boys and girls encountered the demon in the hut, I felt my blood pressure increasing. Not only me, all my friends were feeling uneasy because of eeriness. The horror was charted out carefully, and everything was in that direction only. Though we were scared to shit, but it was also a pleasure watching it with fear.
The film was successful in creating an alternative reality, and we were submerged into that. I remember when the demon unleashed upon those youths in the movie, our heartbeats increased. All our teenage minds were trying to contemplate what would happen next. Now the real horror takes place with the killings. One of the girls dies in the demon attack. Friends bury her in the woods instead of chopping up the corpse as per the instructions of the professor. It proves to be a big mistake. Now the film takes the viewer to the point of no return. The bloody and unexpected twists and turns keep the viewer’s attention in control.
I remember, after The Evil Dead experience, I started looking for more horror movies. Not just the films, but television shows dealing with paranormal and suspense thrillers became my favourite. When I entered adolescence, I tried to find out why was I so interested in this genre. Did supernatural based stories make me cope with reality, or was it a sheer pleasure? What I was searching for in the horror. But I think it was not horror for the sake of horror.
Perhaps, these films internalised a cathartic process in my mind. Or maybe these films provided a survival toolkit that I was looking for.
All of my companions on the journey of watching this genre were not equally reacting in the same way or liking that as I was. Most of them removed the genre later from their favorite watch list. A source of pleasure and anxiety in the teenage days had not become alluring now. It had now shifted to the fear of evil persons instead of the concrete objects. Because of continuously watching the haunting stories, nightmares became a routine. Still, I had not developed a distaste for the genre of horror. My mind was seeking out more enjoyment out of these films. I knew that thrill took center stage and curiosity in the other worlds became a reason that I could immerse myself for.
Psychologists believe that horror movie viewers who enjoy may not wish to escape it. On the contrary, they deliberately and proactively approach and seek it. Those who don’t enjoy, show withdrawal behavior such as shutting the eyes or holding on to a person. Still they don’t leave the film.
As I grew up, my interests were diversified. A subgenre of horror films — slasher films- became my favourite. One of the famous horror in that genre was Friday the 13th. Indeed, this film was based on people’ superstitions and fears around the number 13. I came to know that people consider this number unlucky and there is a name for the phobia. I tried to memorize the name of the phobia, Triskaidekaphobia (fear of number 13).
Also we have paraskevidekatriaphobia (fear of Friday the 13th). I enjoyed Friday the 13th. Once a successful film franchise of its time, it created an immortal and zombie looking character Jason, who becomes the serial killer in the sequels of the movie. Strangely, I had lost faith in God since my 20s but believed in the wrath of the devil. Jason became part of urban legends later, and it further exploited the emotions of the people who believe in dangerous mythical characters like a werewolf.
Films based on paranormal or supernatural phenomena like Poltergeist, telekinesis, ghosts, demons are most watched genre of horror. This genre is still my favourite. Released in 2007, Paranormal Activity became a franchise later. It is a no nonsense story of a couple whose home is haunted by a supernatural presence. They set up a camera to document what it is. The whole film is just an anticipation of something dreadful. It is claimed that it is the most profitable film ever made, based on return on investment.
But I liked The Others most. Based on a gothic supernatural psychological horror, this film is shot in a big house which is haunted. Protagonist Grace Stewart realises one day that a family of a few “others” has moved into her home without her knowledge. She finds that she, her young children and the three servants are all dead. I liked it because the film created an immersive narrative or alternative realities and focussed on use of lights and sounds mostly.
I found that preference for supernatural horror declined with my age. As my understanding about horror movies developed, I noticed that blood and gore can not be the only ingredient of the horror films. Body mutilation and spilling of blood can be a feature of any mainstream movie. Second, horror is not limited to just the supernatural phenomena. Contrarily, without the use of demon, devils can manifest in humans on screen. The dread it may cause in a viewer can be fathomless. The Silence of The Lambs, Psycho and series of Saw are few examples.
In my 30s, I was seeking more logical thought-provoking plots in horror movies that were believable and needed to be rooted in reality and were not just the result of fantasies. I liked Jaws, Black Swan, Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street more shocking than The Conjuring.
Another sub-genre I found more realistic was films related to pandemics and virus outbreaks. I watched a lot of movies in this category like Contagion, The Resident Evil, 12 Monkeys, Extinction, Quarantine etc. These films provided me with a dose of futuristic situations not with hair-raising experiences, but with concerns as against the big and dreadful ghosts and monsters I was watching earlier. Although directors play with the idea of zombies in pandemic films, it lost its appeal as you grow. For me, these films based on zombies were full of exaggeration. They were digressing from the core issue and evoking fears only.
Another mature subgenre of horror films that plays with the human fears is related to spaces, of entrapment or locked in a tiny room or area. Some of the films in this category are Buried, Cube, The Cage and The Platform etc. All play with the fears of our minds being in a situation of helplessness. It is real horror to be helpless than chased and attacked by a zombie in open.
Who Watches Horror Movies and Why?
Very few studies are available on the impact of horror movies and their connection with the human mind. However, psychologists have attempted to define the personality traits of the people who enjoy horror. They categorise their characteristics with the factors of sensation seeking, empathy, need for effect, the dark personality etc. Sensation seekers are mainly teenagers who are ready to seek varied and intense experiences and have the willingness to take physical and social risks for such incidents.
Psychologists also found that men and boys enjoy horror more than do women and girls. Women find it disturbing.
There seems no apparent reason behind why we watch horror movies? But psychologists believe that it is directly related to our perception of enjoyment. And enjoyment is linked to the suspense.
Psychologists at Turku University in Finland focused on the question of why we seek entertainment out of the horror film genre? The researchers chose 100 best and scariest horror movies of the past century to measure the impact on people. Team also mapped neural activity of their subjects during the watch time.
Research findings suggest that 72% of people who watched one horror movie every six months were primarily seeking excitement. They also found that mostly horror was psychological, and the scariest horror was based on real events. When anxiety was increasing slowly, visual and auditory perception regions of the brain were more active.
Neuro-psychiatrist at Ohio State University College of Medicine Dr. Katherine Brownlowe connects these responses with the physical and emotional sensations we call fear. She says,
Amygdala area of the brain instructs the body on how to respond to fear. Some people enjoy the gore, some like being startled and others love escapism it offers. Horror movies may serve a different purpose for each person.
For psychologist Sigmund Freud, horror can highlight unconscious fears, desire, urges, our childhood nurturing. And in the process, these films prove cathartic for our aggressive emotions. In his essay “The Uncanny,” Freud (1919) describes horror as a “manifestation of the uncanny recurring thoughts that are lying in our consciousness by being repressed by our ego, but is not familiar to us.” But psychologist Carl Jung has a different opinion. In “The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” he argues that horror films “tap into primordial archetypes buried deep in our collective subconscious — images like shadow and mother play important roles in the horror genre.”
Stimulation Through Eyes and Ears
Psychologists mark behavior change as an outcome if you watch horror for years. Our sensory perception tends to transform us into an extra cautious and alert person, sometimes an overthinker, especially in case of strange noises, colors and signs. I find that true.
I think horror movies create triggers in the viewer. The director exploits our deepest fears and finds a way to incorporate them in his film’s plot.
Horror film genre emerges out of the standard, or uncommon phobias or innate fear human have since its evolution. And that natural or primal fear is fear of death. It includes the fear of the dark, afterlife and being captured by a carnivorous predator, being eaten, or bitten by. All this is effectively hard-wired into our psyche that triggers our survival mechanism.
Psychologists also note that when our recognition through sight is hampered by any means, our mind considers it scary. That’s why masked people make us nervous. Absence of facial expressions is processed as wrong intentions.
Horror films exploit all possible psychic responses of the brain to the lights and sounds. Uplighting (lighting from below like coming from hell), silhouette, shadows or any distortion creates mystery, and tension because the mind is habitually watching linear imagery. Another idea is restrict your field of vision using extreme close-ups, tracking shots, unclear and shaky shots, and all this add to our fears. Besides, isolated and enclosed spaces and locations, abandoned houses and buildings create a tense atmosphere and helplessness.
Unlike the eyes, ears respond differently. It has been experimented that non-linear sounds scare us most. Music that promotes uncertainty, whispers and silence make us uncomfortable. Horror creators on screen achieve this through creaking, screams, wailings etc. Many people can’t continue to watch a horror movie just because of a sound or scream.
In an exciting study published in 2010 revealed that film soundtracks could have a significant impact on our perception of fear. The study concluded that our brains are naturally averse to amplified non-linear sounds, like those made by distressed animals. According to the study,
Horror films had fewer abrupt frequency shifts and musical sidebands. They had more non-musical sidebands than would be expected. Horror films had more noisy female screams. Adventure films had more noisy male screams than expected, and war films had more amplitude fluctuations than expected.
We Fear the Sight of Blood
The human brain recognizes the blood as potentially life-threatening. It is connected to evolution. Blood loss is the sign of lifelessness and human’s response to it is the sign of danger. And horror films directors know that.
Clotting of blood or coagulation due to horror is now a reality. In an experiment of Leiden University in the Netherlands, 24 healthy volunteers aged less than 30 years participated in a unique experiment. Fourteen of them were assigned to watch a horror movie followed by an educational film and 10 to watch the movie in reverse order. It continued for more than a week apart at the same time of day, and both lasted approximately 90 minutes. It concluded that horror movies are associated with an increase of blood coagulant factor VIII without actual thrombin formation in young and healthy adults. It was concluded that horror movies can curdle your blood.
Horror Movies Can Trigger Cinematic Neurosis
What is the one parameter of a successful horror film.
It chills us to the bones.
If some scenes of a film make us crippled mentally for some time or prevent us from doing our daily activities for a more extended period, it is the sign of PTSD or Post-traumatic stress disorder. It happens because we start identifying with the characters of the film, which triggers our own traumatic experiences. Psychologist B Ballon named this Cinematic Neurosis.
Directed by William Friedkin, The Exorcist was probably the first film, that became a reason for triggering neurosis in several viewers. The film became a public concern after its release in 1973. Many people reported to the psychologists of demonic possession after watching this film.
Set up in a typical home, related to a child behaving strangely and then the underlying discourse of good versus evil, exorcism and Christianity, this film was a successful project in creating a connection with its viewers. Viewers identified with its sequences and traumatic experiences as their own.
People connect when a story takes them to explore their own mysteries. But this process being cathartic on one hand can also cause anxiety on the other.
A few of the signs are; being phobic for secluded places, postponement of answering the door, even if you’re expecting someone, keeping all doors and windows locked, buying or renting a house, keeping in mind that it can be haunted, avoid going into the basement or attic even in the day, keeping an emergency weapon at every corner of the house, sleeping with the lights switched on at night.
And with all of this, now there is an interruption of technology, which is changing how we perceive horror. It has been found that watching these films on small screens (like smartphones) reduces our perception of horror, unlike the giant screens. And people feel more scared when they watch horror films in theatres.
Still, we enjoy watching horror or scary movies because it gratifies us. It connects us to our deepest fears rooted in our existence. Psychologists are trying to explore horror since 19th century. It seems horror is still on the periphery of psychology.
About Author — Ajay Sharma is a multimedia professional. His likes to read about history, existentialism, personal histories, genealogy and crime. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org