Why Are Horror Movies So Popular Now?
Dopamine and other reasons for the smashing success of Horror Films
Jordan Peele’s “Us” had the biggest opening ever for an original horror film, second only to a Marvel movie in 2019. Of course, this sort of news shouldn’t surprise us anymore. Hollywood horror is having a renaissance right now. In the past few years, we’ve seen films like ‘The Witch’, ‘Hereditary’, and ‘Get Out’ all redefine the genre for modern audiences and bring prestige back to horror. There are likely many reasons for this, but I think that a few are worth exploring in detail.
Reason 1 — There’s Money to be Made
The most obvious reason for the staggering success of horror is rooted in Hollywood economics. It’s not just films like ‘Us’ and ‘Get Out’ that kill it at the box office. Horror films in general have turned out to be great investments.
Last year I researched movies that had the best rates of return — that is movies with the highest box office gross divided by film budget. When looking at this measure of profitability, the biggest winners were mostly horror movies.
These days, investing in horror movies is kind of like being in venture capital. Many cheap films can get funded¹, with a few big winners paying for the rest. Blumhouse Productions is a master of this strategy, using it to seed low-budget smashes like ‘Get Out’, ‘the Purge’, ‘Split’, ‘Insidious’, and ‘Sinister’.
Reason 2 — Netflix and Streaming
The disruption of linear television has had ripple effects across the entire entertainment industry. Consider what life was like in the early 2000s before video streaming. In those days, small and quirky films like ‘Garden State’, ‘Snatch’, and ‘Lost in Translation’ could draw respectable audiences to a theatre. Comedies like ‘Napoleon Dynamite’, ‘Legally Blond’, and ‘Scary Movie’ did even better. You can see the top early 2000s films organized by rate of return below. In general, they were much less horror-heavy than they are today.
The decline of comedies and dramas means that the mid-budget movie is dead. Audiences no longer need to schlep to the local cineplex to see nuanced and complex stories or to have a laugh, they just have to open the Netflix app.
With competition from streaming services, theaters increasingly need super heroes, CGI, or Michael-Bay-level explosions to fill seats. The exception to this is horror. These films pack all the emotional punch of a summer blockbuster without also busting a studio’s wallet. Not to mention that in a theatre, we can’t pause or look at our phones to blunt the feeling of fear.
This isn’t to say that Netflix can’t do horror too². The ubiquity of ‘Bird Box’ memes³ last year proved that no genre is completely safe from streaming. Still, it seems that for now there is something special about seeing scary movies in a dark room full of strangers.
Reason 3 — Dopamine, Smartphones, and Social Media
When trying to answer why it is that some people love horror movies more than others, many researchers concluded that it was a matter of brain chemistry. An article in Medical Daily cites these papers and summarizes the findings well. It says:
“people who enjoy horror films are also more responsive to dopamine, which is produced in high-intensity situations, and is released as a result of rewarding, and sometimes sinful experiences”
Basically, horror fans are wired differently. They get an actual physiological kick from gore and fear.
The emphasis on dompamine being the key brain chemical for horror fans is interesting. These days, dopamine is mostly in the news with regards to social media and smartphones. One researcher at Harvard Medical School noted
“every notification, whether it’s a text message, a like on Instagram, or a Facebook notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx.”
All of us with smartphones in our pockets are being bombarded by dopamine-producing stimuli daily. Is it so surprising we need a bigger fix to really feel anything? Have all of us become so starved for stimulation, that the dopamine kick of horror movies is strong enough to engage the average person now? Have we all been re-wired?
Right now there’s no way to tell if the internet has made us more immune to the intense imagery of horror films or whether we are more willing to endure it just to get that dopamine hit. Either way, in a world where the average person is constantly being bombarded by their smartphone, a 2-hour respite in front of an emotionally-charged movie probably feels really good.
Reason 4 — Anxiety and the Times We Live In
If we look at the history of horror, we see that the movies seem to reflect the world in which they were made. The 50s featured simple, yet classic monsters like the creature from the Black Lagoon. The mature mood of the 60s led to psychological thrillers like ‘Psycho’ by Hitchcock. The social decay of the late 60s and early 70s gave rise to George Romero’s zombie classics⁴. The roaring 80s had slasher films, while the irony of the 90s led to meta-horror standouts like ‘Scream’. Finally, the trauma of Sept 11, and the subsequent Iraq War had a direct influence on the proliferation of “torture porn” in films like ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’. Thankfully that fad seems to be finished.
In this decade, our horror films reflect times of increasing economic and technological uncertainty. This social change has led to a Cambrian explosion of micro-genres. Sure, we still have the old supernatural themes found in ‘Insidious’ and ‘Annabelle’. But we also have movies centered around women and mothers like “The Babadook”, “Hereditary”, and “Raw”. Not to mention the new technological angles to horror seen in films like ‘Unfriended’ and ‘Searching’.
My favorite trend is the one exemplified by the big box office winner this week. Movies like ‘Us’ reflect both the racial and social tensions of our times. ‘The Purge’ series covers the same themes and at times is just as imaginative as the zombie classics of the 70s. In fact, the current creativity in horror mirrors the American New Wave of that era. Then as now, political uncertainty finds its way into the national psyche⁵. Horror has always acted as an outlet for our fears. In this time of extreme anxiety, is it really any wonder that horror movies do so well?
1 —Stephen Follows provides a good deep dive on the cost and profit of horror movies here — https://stephenfollows.com/what-the-data-says-about-producing-low-budget-horror-films/
2 — the Haunting of Hill House was excellent and showed that horror could be done incredibly well outside the confines of a 2hr movie
3 — Horror (in theaters and online) seems to really benefit from the network effect. Just as internet companies can spread by word of mouth, so too can good horror movies. In our connected world, large winners can emerge without heavy marketing campaigns.
4 — Dawn of the Dead was a particularly amazing social commentary in my opinion.
5 — Just like horror, I think the popularity of true crime podcasts and shows about serial killers also reflect the national mood