For some time, many of us “horror enthusiast” have been honoring the Halloween season (early Autumn to October 31st) by watching a different horror movie every night in October. Hence, the name 31 days of Halloween. There are formal schedules released by different television networks, websites, and organizations, however, most of us watch what we want. Throughout the month of October, every night, we watch a horror movie. These movies can be from any subgenre of horror from psychological and slasher, to zombie, supernatural, and thriller. Participating in watching horror movies has many benefits that horror enthusiasts enjoy.
I personally favor the supernatural horror sub-genre. However, any true horror enthusiast will go from sub-genre to sub-genre and have their favorites in each. I mix in old favorites with new films I have not seen before. In short, for the horror enthusiast, our Octobers are filled with images of death, blood, the occult, the unknown, the dark, ghosts, and ghouls. In fact, it is our favorite time of year. Nightly, we hear characters screaming, the tearing of flesh, and the gasps of unknown terrors.
For many, who are not horror enthusiast, the idea of surrounding one’s self with images and sounds of death and horror night after night sounds troubling. I have been asked more than once, “why would you do that to yourself”, “do you sleep at all in October”, along with other questions indicating that my behavior is strange or out of the ordinary. However, the horror movie industry is booming. In fact, in 2017, thirty-two horror movies earned $983.7 million.
Box office sales like these tell a different story. It is not so unusual to enjoy horror movies. Some people enjoy the genre more than others, and there are some of course who dislike the genre all together. Horror enthusiast go further than the occasional horror film. Urbandictionary.com tells us that, “If you enjoy horror such as watching horror movies, games, stories; anything to do with horror. You enjoy it to the point that it’s your passion, driving people to get weirded out by you when you talk about it, then you are a horror enthusiast.”
But what is the point? Why watch these movies that can be so unsettling? Why dive into a genre that is dark, violent, and strange? Why use one’s leisure time engaged in the frightening and macabre?
One reason we enjoy the experience of horror movies in what is called “the excitation transfer process.” This has to do with how we feel after we watch a horror movie. Dr. Glenn Sparks tells us that, “when people watch frightening films, their heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increases.” 1 This stimulation continues after the film is finished and we go on with our lives. This means that any emotions we feel will be heightened. Positive feelings will be enhanced. Negative feelings will also be intensified. A person who has had a positive experience during and after watching a horror film will come back for more. They will remember how much fun they had. On the other hand, those who have a negative experience, or have a “bad night/day” after watching a horror film may be more hesitant to watch another.
In addition to, “the excitation transfer process”, Dr. Sparks, states that some people are just wired in a way that they enjoy high levels of physiological arousal. In short, some of us enjoy the adrenaline rush we get by being scared.
Malcolm Turvey, director of the Film and Media Studies program and a professor, presents another theory that is referred to as the “beast inside” theory. According to this theory, “an unconscious, repressed part of every human is actually savage; that the veneer of civility is very thin, and beneath that is essentially a monster,”2 This means, that although we, as spectators, disapprove of what the “monster” in the film is doing, we also believe that part of us is not only capable of doing such a thing, but that deep down we enjoy watching it and that if we could “get away with it” or if we could, we would do the same.
Though each of these theories explains part of the reason why we watch horror movies and participate in things like the 31 days of Halloween, they fail to tell the whole story. Though, I do not believe I alone can tell the whole story, I can, however, fill in some gaps.
I often watch horror movies in order to aid in the understanding of human nature, the world in which we live, and the existence of evil. (I use the term evil pretty broadly here, because the discussion of the nature of evil will be for another day.)
We live in a world where the unspeakable happens. Acts of violence and hate occur daily and we see it. We see it everywhere. Having been on the internet and lived a while, I am well aware that terrible and awful things happen. Violence against our fellow humans, violence against our non-human brethren, and violence against the earth herself.
There is a dark side to life, after all, life must destroy other life in order to exist. These movies help me and others to explore this darker side from a safe distance. We want to understand not only why someone/thing would act so savagely as what we may see in a film, but also how. What is it in the nature of the darkness that allows such things to happen? Watching horror films helps us to understand our own fears, and the fears of what we may be capable of. We willingly engage in the macabre to understand the macabre. The macabre within ourselves, as the “beast within” theory suggests and the macabre of others. Even when we are hiding behind a pillow or yelling at an antagonist.
Watching horror movies also helps the existentialist in me to question whether or not there is such a thing as human nature, that is a nature that would include the “beast within”. Is it in fact the case that humans as a whole have a single nature and that nature includes the “beast”. Yet, experience and statistics tell me that more people do not perform acts of sadism, violence, vengeance, or hate than do. It certainly appears to be the case that some of the population is capable of unthinkable acts, acts that terrify and cause terrible harm. However, we cannot use the few to define the many. Just because some are capable of horrendous acts, it does not logically follow that all are capable of terrible acts. So, though the “beast within” theory can explain the few, it cannot give us a picture of human nature as such. But that glimpse that it does give can be very valuable.
Another important reason to watch horror movies is catharsis. Horror movies often mirror societal concerns and collective fears. How many horror movies begin with an apocalypse? A lot! Popular themes in horror movies are apocalypse, biological or technological experiments gone awry, psychopaths, zombies, and monsters. Each of these themes express different collective fears.
By watching horror movies we are able to conquer our collective fears and thus experience catharsis. That is, we can be released from those fears and repressed emotions. Scienceabc.com tells us, “Godzilla, the classic 1954 sci-fi film, featured a monster created by nuclear radiation. This was a thinly veiled representation of the shared anxiety in Japan about the lingering effects of the nuclear attacks that ended World War II. Defeating this nuclear monster may be seen as a way to achieve collective catharsis. Other films like Friday the 13th tapped into the growing fear of random acts of violence and serial killings in the 1980s.” 3
There have also been scientific studies that show that watching horror movies has health benefits. Yes! It is healthy to watch horror movies!
In one study, from the University of Westminster, it was shown that a person watching a horror movie can burn more calories than another genre of movie. 4 Researchers monitored heart rates and other stress related signs of participants. They found that the increased heart rate and rush of adrenaline one gets when watching a horror movie helps to burn calories.
Watching scary movies also provides a boost to your immune system. In the same study that found that watching horror movies burns calories also found that it can strengthen your immune system. “One proposed reason for this is an increase in leukocytes, which protect the body against both infectious disease and foreign invaders.”5 So not only are horror movies fun but they are healthy!
Watching horror movies and diving into the macabre may not be for everyone, but for some of us it is a passion. It is an exploration of the darkness and of the unknown. We participate in things like the 31 days of Halloween, because it helps us deal with life. Whether it be a distraction, a quest for an adrenaline rush, or on our journey of understanding, watching horror movies and engaging in horror culture gives us valuable experiences that can be used to navigate life.