Note: I started writing this months ago when it was new and a bunch of my horror-fan friends were rolling their eyes about it in social media. But I stopped when I didn’t have a good concluding paragraph. But since I am going to be at Crypticon next weekend (May 22-24, 2015) I thought it was a good impetus to dust off some of my horror-specific unposted essays. Enjoy!
Ripley is not impressed with your evidence or your conclusions.
What does it say about you if you enjoy horror movies? (Other than, you know, the obvious. That you enjoy horror movies.) Alice Robb’s New Republic article purports to reveal yourself to yourself, like one of those “which secondary character from the third season of Buffy are you?” quizzes that your friends take and then post on Facebook.
Movie-goers spooked by the acclaimed horror film The Babadook are in good company:
This article is not actually going to be about The Babadook. In fact, this article has the distinct whiff of a trunk article that was sitting around waiting for a slow news day and a sufficiently timely lead-in.
Furthermore, all of the cites in the article are so fusty (the most recent is from 2003, the oldest from 1985) that I suspect it’s been sitting around for a long time. So why publish it now?
William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, has called the Australian film the most terrifying movie he’s ever seen. “It will scare the hell out of you,” he warned his Twitter followers.
That doesn’t sound like an enjoyable experience — and for many of us, it’s not.
And for many of us it is. The end. Obviously William Friedkin considers it high praise, as would most people who enjoy horror movies.
Psychologists have shown that viewing horror movies induces physiological changes consistent with a “fight-or-flight” response.
Right. Horror movies provide an adrenaline rush. Is this surprising to anyone? It’s like trying to make a big deal out of the fact that people scream on roller coasters. If you don’t like roller coasters it might seem strange to hear all these people who are supposedly having a good time screaming at the top of their lungs, but — you know. Roller coasters are like that. (Yes, I also love roller coasters.)
In 2003, scientists found that healthy men and women had a significantly higher heart rate and a higher concentration of stress hormones like cortisol in their blood if they watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than if they sat in a quiet room.
Something about contrasting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with sitting in a quiet room strikes me as weirdly hilarious. I mean, wouldn’t you have to contrast The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with the experience of watching a movie that isn’t horror? Wouldn’t literally any activity give you more stress than sitting in a quiet room?
horror movies can even be fatal. A woman in Kansas died of a heart attack during the crucifixion scene in The Passion of the Christ. For a Taiwanese man with high blood pressure, Avatar was the last straw.
Okay, random anecdotes aren’t usually considered much evidence for anything, but do you notice something else?
THESE ARE NOT HORROR MOVIES.
You could make a case for The Passion of the Christ being horror, but it wasn’t marketed that way, and its audience was not presumed to be horror fans. In fact, it garnered a huge following of evangelical Christians who loved the movie because of what they saw as its religious message.
And Avatar? Seriously? If you ranked non-horror blockbusters of the last ten years in order of “most like a horror movie” to “least like a horror movie” Avatar would be down near the bottom. It’s a day-glow pastel movie about blue cat people and psychedelic dinosaurs. It’s kind of exactly the opposite of a horror movie.
But what does it say about you if you love violent or scary films?
Yes, what does it say about you? But also notice — “violent or scary.” Violence in the movies isn’t limited to horror. Fans of horror and fans of violent action movies might have a certain amount of overlap, but it’s by no means one hundred percent. In evidence, I give you the most consistently terrifying sub-genre of horror, which is also the least bloody: the ghost story.
You’re more likely to: Lack empathy
Oh, really? How do you figure?
a 2000 paper [..] administered personality tests to 233 undergraduates and asked them to reflect on a memory of watching a horror movie on a date. [..] Students who scored higher on measures of empathy [..] were more likely to report negative responses like sleep disturbances and feelings of distress.
So — a study from more than 10 years ago — on a relatively small number — of college undergraduates — who saw horror movies while on a date — found that the more empathetic students — recalled reacting more strongly to the movie.
It’s hard to find such a paltry study as compelling evidence of much of anything, but it doesn’t support her thesis anyway, because horror fans are self-selecting, and might well be self-selecting from the subset of people with higher empathy and more distress. Remember, horror fans consider “scared the hell out of me” as high praise. My estimation of the quality of the first Saw movie went up when it featured prominently in a bad dream I had later. If I watch a horror movie and it kind of freaks me out and I have to turn on all the lights and wish I’d watched it with other people around, that’s going to be a movie I praise highly and recommend to others.
Maybe that seems weird, if you’re not a horror fan. But “intent to scare” is the number one basic defining characteristic of horror, and “not scary” is a common negative critique of horror-genre films given by horror fans.
Her underlying thesis seems bizarrely counter-intuitive: that people who like horror films the most are the ones who aren’t frightened by them. But would you assume people who liked comedies the most were the ones who didn’t laugh?
You’re more likely to: Be aggressive and thrill-seeking
So… horror fans are basically sociopaths, is that what you’re trying to say? Anybody who likes fiction about serial killers is automatically suspected of being kinda like one in real life? That seems to be where she’s going with this.
1998, psychologists [..] showed 470 eighth-grade children [..] violent cartoons. After each scene, the students had to indicate, on a scale of 1 to 10, whether they found the scene funny, thrilling, or violent. They also asked the children’s teachers to evaluate their students’ personality traits—and found that children who thought the violent scenes were thrilling or funny were likely to be perceived as more aggressive and excitable by their teachers.
Not horror movies. Not horror movie fans. Not adults. Not recent.
This wasn’t the first study to give horror-movie junkies something to worry about.
Hold on. If horror movie fans really are a bunch of borderline sociopaths, why would we worry about whether or not we’re a bunch of borderline sociopaths? That doesn’t follow at all. People who genuinely lack empathy don’t care that they lack empathy. That’s part of lacking empathy.
Or is she trying to suggest that if you are that rare creature, a completely empathy-full horror fan, you should be wary of the other people in the theater with you, Scream 2 teaser style?
A little thought experiment. Your car has broken down out in the middle of nowhere on a dark, scary, rural road. Which type of person would you prefer to stop and offer you a ride? 1. A Gamergater, 2. A Quiverfuller, 3. A member of Congress, 4. A horror fan.
Because I’m going with #4.
In 1985, psychologists [..] asked over 300 undergraduates about their movie preferences and looked for correlations with other personality traits. The students who sought out horror movies were more likely than others to say they would like to watch an autopsy being performed, would attend gladiator fights if they could travel back in time, and would slow down to watch a car accident.
Undergraduates again, but at least this one starts by identifying actual fans of horror movies. In 1985, though. Unless that’s a typo, I’m guessing that we’re reading about a study from 1985 because nothing more recent made the same point. (Lazy Googling could also explain it.)
But even so, that particular collection of three things seems a bit odd. Based on a lifetime of being in traffic, I would venture that everyone slows down to watch a car accident, which means that horror fans are just more likely to admit it.
Did they ask these college kids what their favorite thing to do if they traveled back in time would be, and they spontaneously came up with gladiator fights? Or did they just ask “would you want to attend a gladiator fight if you could travel back in time?” and they said, “okay, sure, I’d do that.” Anyway, there have been a number of movies about gladiator fights, and I can’t think of a single one that was actually a horror movie, so the connection seems a little dubious.
Finally — having helped run the Seattle World Horror Convention in 2001 — I can confirm that horror fans are indeed likely to be highly interested in watching an autopsy being performed, or at least, watching a film of an autopsy being performed. But not one of the people at my convention struck me as wanting to watch the film because they were “aggressive or thrill-seeking.” They wanted to watch it because they were curious.
Maybe the writer of this essay thinks it’s freaky that somebody would be curious enough about what autopsies are really like to want to watch one. But if so, every medical student in the country is just that freaky.
You’re more likely to: Be a man
Well, if I already know I’m not a man, what am I supposed to get out of this? Am I supposed to suspect that maybe I am secretly a man because I like horror films?
Consistent with the stereotype, men seem to experience — or at least admit to experiencing — fewer negative emotional side effects of horror films.
Again, working off the assumption that people like horror movies because they don’t find them scary.
You’re more likely to: Be a man accompanied by a frightened woman
Oh, well. That sounds terrible. That sounds like real serial-killer stuff.
In an experiment in the 1980s,
The 80s again.
a team of psychologists led by Dolf Zillmann had 36 male and 36 female undergraduates
A small number of undergraduates again.
watch a horror movie in opposite-sex pairs; each viewer had to evaluate their companion’s desirability before and after the movie, and answer questions about their experience of the film. Men were most likely to enjoy the movie when paired with a woman who was distressed by it, and least likely to enjoy if the woman was unperturbed.
This anecdote is structured so that we’re meant to picture some straight-up sadistic dude who likes the movie because it’s frightening to the woman next to him, because what he likes is to see women in real life being frightened.
But when the genre of the movie is horror, people reacting in terror in the theater with you are “proving” it’s a better movie. It’s why laugh tracks were invented — to make people think comedies are funnier, to tell them it’s okay to laugh. A frightened companion tells you it’s okay to be scared.
During The Sixth Sense, there was this guy who would kick the back of my seat whenever something scary happened. Usually I hate people kicking the back of my seat, but during that movie, I was fine with it. People yelping, cringing, and generally freaking out is a good thing during a horror movie. That’s how you know it’s working.
It didn’t make the woman more attractive, though: both men and women judged their companions as less desirable as “working mates” if they showed distress.
Oh, well. Okay then. So dudes who like horror movies aren’t actually malicious lunatics who want to take women home and torture them in their basements? What a relief.
The clear message of this essay is, “if you like horror movies you are a bad person and should feel bad about yourself,” but why is that the message? Who is this for? Why was it written? It has the sleazy, manipulative feel of a vintage Satanic Panic article, without the religion.