Why Do We Like Horror Movies?

Though scary stories have existed since the dawn of consciousness, horror movies began in the late 19th Century with short silent films. Then in the 1920s, films like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari pushed the boundaries between the conscious and the unconscious, disturbing viewers’ minds and making their neurons work extra hard. First and foremost, horror was always about art; and art is about making people think.

Over time, horror movies evolved. Several in the early 20th Century (Frankenstein, Dracula etc.) were based on classic novels or plays. Then in the ’50s, giant monsters were all the rage. Despite the sometimes cheesy blending of horror and sci-fi, a few frightening examples remained in stuff like The Twilight Zone, a cerebral show that can terrify viewers even today.

But in some major examples, horror stopped being scary, and frightening films were replaced by fun, campy movies that made no attempt to hide their silliness. Then there were psychedelic films like Suspiria, followed by a surge of slasher films. As time went on, these slashers got gorier and gorier, and we ended up with torture movies like Saw and Hostel.

There are many genres within horror. The movies are as varied as the imagination. But what do they have in common? Why do frightening tales, especially visual ones, speak so loudly to our emotions? And will horror ever go away?

Let’s explore the issue.


One of the most important reasons we love horror is the fact that it’s exciting. No matter how much of a chicken we may act like, we all secretly want to get a little scared. It helps us know we’re alive.

We find excitement in all kinds of fearful activities, whether it’s a suspenseful movie or something a little more dangerous like bungee jumping.

Some viewers like films with a lot of jump scares. This trend started at the very beginning with movies like Dracula and Nosferatu. Over time, the art was perfected in faster, more hyperactive pictures like Insidious and The Conjuring.

Still, other horror fans prefer a slow-burn like Psycho or Silence of the Lambs.

They Keep Us On Our Toes

One other reason we like horror films is the same reason we like every other movie or book – we like to identify with characters and situations.

From the very beginning of society, people have loved to tell stories. It helps make sense of our own lives, and the more we study the subject, the more we come to realize that we’re all sharing one great story of humanity. Myths about heroes and monsters were the precursor to horror movies, and they help us to learn about ourselves.

For example, people enjoy myths like Jason and the Argonauts or movies like The Avengers because we like the idea of a hero. In fact, we often want to be the hero, and stories we’ve heard since childhood really can affect how our courage and character develops.

The same can be said for horror flicks, which often serve as cautionary tales that teach a certain lesson or morality. For instance, movies have taught us that we’re not supposed to pick up hitchhikers or take a moonlit stroll in the woods.

Confronting Our Inner Darkness

Directly related to the elements of adrenaline and morality, perhaps the most important reason we love horror movies is the dark unknown within our psyche. We are composite creatures, made up of both light and darkness. Psychoanalysts tell us that it’s healthy to explore the darker parts of our minds, such as the fear of death.

Well, horror movies are all about death. So watching them can connect us with that deep part of ourselves we try to hide from. Scary stories conjure up powerful, primal images that have evolved with Homo sapiens since before we stood erect. It’s the same sort of feeling our ancestors got from seeing a leopard or a snake. But in the case of horror movies, we feel more in control of the situation. We confront the terrifying feelings buried deep within.

As for movies about serial killers, we’re reminded of the fact that people are the most dangerous creatures in the world. Watching the films is a way for us to explore alternate psyches, and some feel it can help guard us against becoming deranged ourselves.

But of course, there’s another side to the concept. People have said for decades that overexposure to simulated violence can cause people to do horrible things. That’s why we don’t let little children watch certain movies. But people with violent tendencies typically developed those attributes from what they’ve experienced in their real lives. Watching a horror movie isn’t going to make a normal person do anything evil or foolish. But many feel it’s probably best to not be obsessed over gore for gore’s sake – it’s all about the shock value, the quickened pulse. And seeing that we’re all red inside reminds us of our mortality.

Too much gore can possibly desensitize a person, but the case can be made that that mostly applies to real gore. Most who watch gory films find that though it may disturb them, it’s nothing like seeing it in real life. Knowing it’s fake takes away a lot of the fear and disgust. Some can’t even handle seeing a little bit of real blood coming out of a typical cut on the finger, but have no problem watching characters get eviscerated in Saw.

Then again, some people actually seem transfixed on real gore. Romans used to watch graphic slaughter in the Colosseum. Even further back than that, tribes engaged in blood rituals where people were violently sacrificed. Clearly, human beings are complex (and often disturbed) creatures.

With horror, it all comes down to what the images teach us about ourselves – about what’s inside. Horror films can help us explore our minds, which in turn teaches us a lot more about the world.

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