Shortlist - - THIS WEEK - Words: Hay­ley Kadrou

In­ves­ti­gat­ing our love of be­ing chilled to the bone.

For some of us, the thirst for a twisted scary movie isn’t con­fined to Hal­loween. But why do we get such joy from watch­ing peo­ple on screen suf­fer? Short­List in­ves­ti­gates…

The last time I went to the cin­ema to watch a hor­ror movie, it was 2005. I was a time-rich teenager and had ral­lied to­gether a group of like­wise friends to watch slasher film House Of Wax, a re­make (of sorts) of the 1953 hit. The for­mer was only more peak-noughties in cast than it was aes­thet­ics, with then rom-com king Chad Michael Mur­ray and (bizarrely) re­al­ity TV roy­alty Paris Hil­ton as vic­tims. Dur­ing all the bloody-thirsty, jump-scare hor­ror tropes, I spent most of the 113 min­utes watch­ing through my fin­gers while feel­ing my stom­ach churn, won­der­ing if I’d missed a trick. Why do sane, sen­si­ble peo­ple of­fer up a slither of their salaries to jump out of their seats in at best, sur­prise, and at worst, ter­ror and dis­gust?

But in my con­fused hate of hor­ror, I am cer­tainly the mi­nor­ity. As author of Why Hor­ror Se­duces and As­so­ci­ate Pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Aarhus, Den­mark, Mathias Clasen puts it “Hor­ror has been a main­stay of Hol­ly­wood for as long as Hol­ly­wood has ex­isted,” and his re­cent re­search sug­gests more than half of peo­ple con­sider them­selves fans of ‘hor­ror me­dia.’ And right now, the in­dus­try is boom­ing.

Take June 2018 box of­fice hit Hered­i­tary. The haunted-house type thriller over­shot ex­pec­ta­tions over its open­ing week­end in the US with 1.4m peo­ple in at­ten­dance. Or more re­cently Hal­loween – the 40 years later fol­low up to the 1978 clas­sic, which broke records upon re­lease this au­tumn, pulling in $78 mil­lion (AED287 mil­lion) on the open­ing week­end, af­firm­ing how our lust for a slasher film thrill spans gen­er­a­tions. These on-screen tri­umphs fol­low what’s gone down as the big­gest box-of­fice year in hor­ror his­tory. Stand out films like Stephen King’s It: Chap­ter One that broke view­ing records ev­ery day dur­ing its first week in the­atres or har­row­ing hit Get Out, which be­came the high­est gross­ing orig­i­nal de­but by a di­rec­tor (Jor­dan Peele) ever. As spine-chill­ing as they were, we watched (en­dured?) them will­ingly, urg­ing our friends to do so too. So why are we so pulled in by the para­dox of en­joy­ing the sen­sa­tion of be­ing scared?


There is some­thing very pri­mal about the state of feel­ing scared, and some psy­chol­o­gists even cite fear as the old­est emo­tion. As Mathias puts it “The fear sys­tem is deeply em­bed­ded in some very prim­i­tive, an­cient struc­tures in our ner­vous sys­tem.” When our brain alerts us to a po­ten­tial threat, even if we know it’s un­likely to crawl out from the screen, The Ring style, a chem­i­cal re­ac­tion takes place within the body. You know, when your heart races, your stom­ach sinks and your hands get all sweaty? Yeah, that. The ar­gu­ment to ac­tively seek­ing out that re­ac­tion is that, well, hu­mans kind of like the thrill of that fight or flight re­sponse kick­ing in.

Take that mo­ment in last year’s It. You know, when Pen­ny­wise the Danc­ing Clown lures in­no­cent kid Ge­orgie closer to him only to... well, we don’t want to give any­thing away. Or per­haps the most iconic mo­ment in hor­ror movie his­tory the scene in Psy­cho when killer Nor­man Bates pulls back the shower cur­tain on Mar­ion Crane, knife in hand, ea­ger for blood. Margee Kerr, a so­ci­ol­o­gist who stud­ies fear, and author of Scream: Chill­ing Ad­ven­tures Into the Science of Fear ex­plains that in re­ac­tion to those jump-out-of-our-skin mo­ments “Our arousal sys­tem is ac­ti­vated, trig­ger­ing a cas­cade


of neu­ro­trans­mit­ters and hor­mones like en­dor­phins, dopamine, sero­tonin and adren­a­line that in­flu­ence our brains and our bod­ies.” It’s these height­ened mo­ments fol­lowed by a rush of hor­mones that keep fans of the genre hand­ing over their cash at the cine­mas. Af­ter all, hu­mans are no­to­ri­ous for en­joy­ing a build-up of ten­sion fol­lowed by a re­lease. But what psy­chol­o­gists and sci­en­tists have cred­ited our fix­a­tion with fear to lies more in how we ac­tu­ally feel af­ter all the highs and lows.

Take the clas­sic 1973 ‘Love Bridge’ study by so­cial psy­chol­o­gists Dut­ton and Avron. It demon­strated that men were


more in­clined to call an at­trac­tive woman who gave him her num­ber af­ter the adren­a­line of a dan­ger­ous ex­pe­ri­ence – such as walk­ing across a rick­ety, wob­bly bridge (we’re in­ter­ested to see what weird and won­der­ful dat­ing ad­vice this lead to in the mid-70s). And hor­ror films are a much more at­tain­able and en­ter­tain­ing way to mimic that same sen­sa­tion. Margee notes that af­ter the ex­pe­ri­ence of some­thing fear­ful, emo­tions are height­ened, and the shared par­tic­i­pa­tion can even ce­ment so­cial bonds (in a sim­i­lar way to ac­tual real-life hor­ror ex­pe­ri­ences) which is ex­actly why a scary movie is a cliché date op­tion.

But the lure to­wards vol­un­tary fear has al­ways been our abil­ity to have con­trol over the emo­tion tak­ing some­thing so pri­mal into our own will is part of the drive. Margee ex­plains: “It’s up to us to in­ter­pret this re­sponse as en­joy­able and not ac­tu­ally threat­en­ing – the con­text is key.” With any hair-rais­ing movie, not only do we know (or hope) it’s go­ing to be ter­ri­fy­ing, we usu­ally have a good idea of when the scary mo­ments might arise, and who or what the cul­prit might be, along­side the knowl­edge that, duh, it’s not ac­tu­ally real life. Un­less you’re watch­ing a real-life in­spired thriller like the 2018 Net­flix movie Veron­ica, (it’s caused a flood of Twit­ter users claim­ing they had to turn it off mid-view­ing it’s that ter­ror-in­duc­ing) which is based on real po­lice re­ports. Then we can’t help you…


But gen­er­ally, con­trol­ling the phe­nom­e­non of fear is largely why we can’t get enough, Hal­loween or not. Watch­ing a hor­ror film can of­fer a sense of con­trol that we just can’t get in every­day life – espe­cially dur­ing peak times of po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and ever eco­log­i­cal un­cer­tainty. Plenty of peo­ple with anx­i­eties, for ex­am­ple, can be­come drawn to fright­ful films. When you sit

down to watch a pos­sessed lit­tle girl’s head spin 360 de­grees (is it only us that this still ter­ri­fies?) or a per­son hack off his own foot in des­per­a­tion to es­cape a mad­man, you know that you’re sit­ting down for hours of blood­cur­dling fear long be­fore the scenes un­fold.

Not a lux­ury you’re granted when con­fronted with real-life mad­ness and tragedy. Margee states “The ex­pe­ri­ence of feel­ing em­bod­ied in the mo­ment, not think­ing about the fu­ture or the past in the con­text of safety can be en­joy­able,” while Mathias adds that the en­tire fi­asco can serve as a mor­bid dis­trac­tion from real life mun­dan­ity. “A hor­ror film can put things into per­spec­tive” he says. “If you feel over­whelmed with dead­lines or money wor­ries, well at least you don’t have it as bad as the poor peo­ple who are be­ing hacked by a ma­niac with a chain­saw on the screen.”

For other loud and proud gore fans, there’s a sense that be­ing ob­sessed with hor­ror films could help you ac­tu­ally make it through a real-life emer­gency. Or at least give you brag­ging rights when you get 95 per­cent likely to sur­vive a zom­bie apoc­a­lypse on an on­line quiz. Want to sur­vive a mur­derer launch­ing a ran­dom at­tack on your house? Don’t hide up­stairs, the greats have taught us. Just ask any slasher fan, they’ll gladly tell you their es­cape route if it were them be­ing hunted by a masked killer. And with hor­ror movies – from un­ex­plained phan­toms to psy­cho­log­i­cal thrillers – no­to­ri­ously be­ing a re­flec­tion of so­ci­etal anx­i­eties on a greater level (think Get Out as a re­sponse to grow­ing racial ten­sions in Amer­ica or 2002’s 28 Day Later com­ing at a time surg­ing with con­cern over sci­en­tific in­ter­fer­ence with na­ture) nar­ra­tives gain such uni­ver­sal appeal. Or as Margee ex­plains “Which mon­sters seem to tap into a col­lec­tive ten­sion re­flect grow­ing anx­i­eties.” The joy can de­rive from a glance at the griz­zly pos­si­bil­i­ties, but all while go­ing home to our rel­a­tively safe beds when the cred­its roll, feel­ing a lit­tle more pre­pared should the events play out.



But, is it more than the sen­sa­tion of be­ing scared along­side the re­al­ity of ac­tu­ally be­ing quite safe that hor­ror buffs crave? Or do we just, let’s be hon­est, en­joy ex­plor­ing the dark­est sides of hu­man­ity, guns, guts and gore in­cluded? Call it mor­bid cu­rios­ity or Schaden­freude (the Ger­man word for en­joy­ing peo­ple’s pains) but there’s def­i­nitely a lit­tle more at play than be­ing prac­ti­cally pre­pared for para­nor­mal in­va­sions or psy­cho killers. Maybe it’s not the per­spec­tive of the ap­par­ent vic­tim we’re so drawn too. Mathias ex­plains: “The in­stinct to peek into the abyss is as old as our species.” It’s this idea that has lead the me­dia to sen­sa­tion­alise real-life crimes that re­flect hor­ror movies over the years. The iconic 1996 film Scream (the mask lifted from Ed­vard Munch’s fa­mous paint­ing is still widely used as a go-to Hal­loween cos­tume to­day) is said to have in­spired a se­ries of copy­cat killers. More di­rectly still, a man named Daniel Ster­ling stabbed his girl­friend and drank her blood af­ter watch­ing In­ter­view with a Vam­pire in 1994, and later said “I was in­flu­enced by the movie. I en­joyed the movie.” Yikes.

While it doesn’t take much com­mon sense to re­alise these cases are rare (not ev­ery­one’s drink­ing blood, we prom­ise) the sug­ges­tion is such tales can awaken dark de­sires in some


peo­ple, as if our species’ at­trac­tion to watch­ing dis­turb­ing scenes is a way for most of us – the ones who you know, don’t chop peo­ple up with an axe af­ter go­ing to the cin­ema - to live out a kind of rooted de­sire to be de­struc­tive. The re­al­ity, how­ever, is much fur­ther from the truth. Most hor­ror fans seek joy from the genre not as an indi­rect way to live out their mur­der­ous al­ter ego, but ac­tu­ally to anchor their moral com­pass. Mathias de­scribes that most hor­ror films as “in­tensely moral­is­tic.”

Our fas­ci­na­tion and joy gained from sit­ting through two hours of haunted houses is com­plex – mul­ti­ple things are work­ing on dif­fer­ent lev­els. While we’re peek­ing cu­ri­ously into the dark side (be­cause we do kind of want to see how this chain­saw mur­der spree thing pans out), we’re also get­ting a lit­tle hor­mone kick. We love those, af­ter all. And while we can get the lat­ter from adren­a­line kicks like cliff div­ing or roller­coast­ers, there’s some­thing quite unique in what cin­ema has to of­fer, as it pro­vides view­ers with all that rush and in­tel­lec­tual stim­u­la­tion (well, the good ones; rub­bish films aren’t safe from any genre) all while al­low­ing us to plan ex­actly how to take down our mor­tal en­e­mies should we have to. And you can hardly beat that com­bi­na­tion when it’s all tak­ing place in the com­forts of a plush cin­ema while chow­ing down on some salt ‘n’ sweet pop­corn. Hmmm, maybe I will brave the lat­est Hal­loween movie on the big screen this year af­ter all…










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