Fear Factor: The Psychology Behind Horror Films

Fear Factor: The Psychology Behind Horror Films


You’re watching a horror movie.

There are strangers around

And your phone is dead.

Out of the corner of your eye, you spot him:

Shia Labeouf!


He’s sitting behind you

About two feet back

He leans against your chair and he breathes on your neck.

He’s gaining on you.

Shia Labeouf…just kidding.


Fear is our ultimate survival instinct: it’s what drives and challenges us beyond our limits to come out of an adventure as a different person. The concept of fear is one that is explored through cinema, especially in horror films. The psychology behind our fascination with horror films is complex but one that is worthy of exploration as the motives behind watching horror films vary among different kinds of people.

The root of horror films, fear, was originally believed by Christof Koch, an American neuroscientist, to originate from the right amygydala. This claim was, however, debunked in 2010 by Thomas Traube of the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena who stated that scary movies don’t influence the right amygydala but instead impact the visual cortex (the part of the brain that processes visual information), the thalamus (the part of the brain that switches between the brain hemispheres), the dorsal-medial prefontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in problem solving and planning), and the insular cortex (the part of the brain responsible for self-awareness).

The scientific discoveries made in terms of understanding the chemical components of horror are matched stride-for-stride by the psychological analyses conducted regarding the motives of why we watch horror films. In a paper published in the Journal of Media Psychology in 2004, Dr. Glenn Walters dissected what makes horror films so attractive, narrowing it down to three primary factors: tension, relevance, and unrealism. Dr. Walters described credited tension in horror films to the buildup of suspense, shock, and gore. Relevance referred to how personally relevant the content of the horror film was to the viewer, but also factored in cultural meaningfulness and the human struggle in coping with death. The term “unrealism” refers to the audience’s ability to discern that hat is being viewed is fiction rather than truth. According to Walter’s criteria, movies that have lots of buildup, cultural awareness, and tell-tale signs of fiction have the greatest horror appeal.

Past psychoanalysts of horror, such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, saw horror as a manifestation of internal suppression. In Sigmund Freud’s eyes, horror was an expression of the imagination and primitive thoughts of id, which was suppressed by civilized ego. Carl Jung, on the other hand, thought that horror was tied into a more collective subconscious that targeted archetypes such as the shadow and the mother. Dr. Dolf Zillman, a professor at the University of Alabama, proposed the “excitation transfer theory,” which states that the feelings that develop while watching horror movies intensify the satisfaction the audience experiences once the hero emerges victorious at the end of the film. This correlates with the dispositional alignment theory, the idea that audience members enjoy horror movies because satisfaction is achieved because the characters killed in horror movies “deserve” it.

Horror films also have a social component as according to the gender socialization theory, colloquially known as the “snuggle theory,” proposed in 1986, male adolescents found horror films more enjoyable if the women around them were visibly scared. In contrast, female adolescents enjoyed horror films less when their male counterparts were displaying physical signs of fear.

The motivations behind watching horror films has further been explored by Dr. Deidre Johnston, who in the 1995 issue of Human Communication Research stated the four reasons for watching horror movies: gore watching, thrill watching, independent watching, and problem watching. The four motivations are distinguished by “cognitive and affective responses to horror films, as well as viewers’ tendency to identify with either the killers or victims in these films.” Gore watchers, for instance, usually have low empathy and are more likely to identify with the killers. Thrill watchers tend to have higher empathy, are more sensation-seeking, and identify with the victims. Independent watchers refer to those who have high empathy for the victim and are optimistic about the protagonist’s ability to conquer fear. Problem watchers are those who have high empathy but focused on the negative effect of the protagonist’s ability to conquer fear, and thus experienced a sense of helplessness throughout the film.

As you dim down the lights for your next horror film watching experience, and pop some popcorn, thinking about why you’re watching. Are you a gore watcher? A thrill watcher? Are you watching this movie to appear brave and impress a special someone, or are you in it for the thrill?

Lean in, turn off your cell phone, and try not to scream too loudly.

The James Turrell Skyspace

The James Turrell Skyspace

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