“I see dead people…”: Why we watch psychological-horror movies.

Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, Seven, American Psycho, The Machinist, The Black Swan…what do all these movies have in common? If you’re thinking psychological-horror thriller, bingo!

We have all at one point or another watched a horror movie. Over the years these have been rebranded as ‘psychological thrillers’ and are raking in billions of dollars every year. We humans are one of a kind—willing and enthusiastic about getting scared out of our wits! Many of us have gathered around with friends and family to have a horror movie marathon night. Why do we repeatedly and willingly to put ourselves through sometimes gruesome, and almost always heart-pounding moments that we would otherwise be aversive to experiencing?

According to researchers examining this predicament, we crave being scared. Why? Because this kind of being scared is a safe one. According to Fishcoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology, when we watch scary movies, we know that there is an end to it, and that we will still be perfectly fine—well most of the time. According to researchers, as we live relatively calm and uneventful lifestyles, we seek sensational and stimulating events (Andrade & Cohen, 2007). The levels of how much sensation we seek varies and not everybody resorts to bungee jumping or skydiving; cue psychological horror movies! 

In the words of Fishcoff, “Horror movies are one of the better ways to get really excited.” Therefore as research has demonstrated, sensation that we seek is directly related to how much we enjoy a horror movie (Walters. 2004). Therefore, higher the need we have for seeking sensation, the more we enjoy the movies. This also explains why youngsters who have a greater need for stimulation and excitement than older adults are the main consumers of this movie genre (Begley, 2011). Researchers also found counter-intuitive results—when more negative emotions were aroused whilst viewing a psychological-horror, higher was the liking for the same. Thus, watching such movies provide us with a cathartic effect (Walters, 2004) and fulfill our natural curiosity. Through these movies and characters, we vicariously experience what we would never be able to do in real life. The movies allow us to experience just the right amount of fear and excitement, without the danger in a real situation. Watching horror movies helps us relieve our daily stresses in unexpected ways, albeit a minority may spend a few sleepless and cautious nights. 

Our fascination with and increasing demand worldwide for psychological-horror movies also has economic advantages for some, especially Japanese filmmakers. Japanese horror has carved its own niche in horror moviemaking, establishing itself as a genre. The remake rights for these movies are highly sought after by Hollywood filmmakers; movies like The Ring and The Grudge are famous remakes of Japanese horror (Ozawa, 2006). Rise in the popularity of Japanese horror paved the path for filmmakers to take cues on how to scare the pants off their audience. Let us not forget however, the original works of Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, 1968). These filmmakers first taught us how to make our blood run cold, much before the Japanese.

In conclusion, go ahead and watch psychological-horror films—if you feel like it—because if anything at all, they are more beneficial than harmful, courtesy the baffling functionality of the human limbic system.

Merin Sanil